Callie Harper All of Me (All In 2) (ang) - PDF Free Download (2024)




CONTENTS All of Me Copyright Callie Harper’s Books 1.


2. Liam 3. Sophie 4. Liam 5. Sophie 6. Liam 7. Sophie 8. Liam 9. Sophie 10. Liam 11. Sophie 12. Liam 13. Sophie 14. Liam 15. Sophie 16. Liam 17. Sophie 18. Liam 19. Sophie Epilogue, December Epilogue, December THE END Thank You Acknowledgments Contact


By Callie Harper


Copyright 2017 Callie Harper Cover Design by Perfect Pear Creative

All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real events, people, or places is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced or distributed in any format without the permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations used for review. If you have not purchased this book or received a copy from the author, you are reading a pirated book.

The author acknowledges the trademarked status of products referred to in this book and acknowledges that trademarks have been used without permission.

This book contains mature content, including graphic sex. Please do not continue reading if you are under the age of 18 or if this type of content is disturbing to you.


All In Novels In Deep (Chase & Emma) All of Me (Liam & Sophie) All of You (Jax & Sky), coming May 2017

Beg For It Novels Unleashed (Declan & Kara) Undone (Ash & Ana) Untamed (Heath & Violet) Unbelievable (Colt & Caroline) Undeniable (Dom & Gigi) Unwrapped (Jack & Hannah)

Off Limits: A Stepbrother MMA Romance



“ W ear that blue dress.” My mother’s voice climbed up the stairs with acerbic

vigor. “The one that makes your waist look slim.” To the untrained ear, that statement might seem complimentary, as if my mother were suggesting a dress she thought made me look pretty. But that wasn’t it. What she meant was that I’d put on some weight in the last few months and now I needed serious camouflage. It wouldn’t do any good to point out to her that gaining weight after having been a skeleton was a healthy thing. Professional ballerinas look like art up on the stage, light as a feather on their toe shoes as they’re lifted and thrown into the air as if they weigh nothing at all. But it took near-starvation to achieve that look, every rib poking out, hips jutting angry and sharp. Honestly, I barely recognized my body now when I looked in the mirror. Curves! I had them! Not booming, slamming curves, but gentle, feminine curves. I’d had to buy all new bras. Or should I just say bras. I hadn’t needed them when I’d danced professionally. At my height of 5’6”, my optimal ballerina weight maxed out around 107. And I’d been all muscle and sinew, tough as nails with broken toes I still danced on with a smile. Now that I’d quit dancing at the ripe old age of 25, the scale kept creeping up. 110. 115. If I didn’t watch it I’d hit 120, a number I’d literally never seen. Just the thought would have made me break out in hives during the apex of my career. Now I wondered with detached curiosity, what exactly would happen next in this new and fascinating world called Eating when Hungry? I was charting a new path, making a fresh start. I just didn’t know where I was headed. Everyone around me told me I still had years left to dance. But I knew I couldn’t stand it for another day. I wasn’t injured. There was nothing wrong with me, physically at least. That meant the problem was in my head, or in my heart, because neither of them wanted to be a professional ballerina anymore.

The life of a ballerina might sound glamorous, as if it involved not much more than prancing around in tutus and ordering others about like a spoiled diva. But that hadn’t been my experience. My days had been a constant wash of grueling rehearsals, nursing/hiding injuries, and competing for roles with other, increasingly younger dancers. Every ounce of my energy had been devoted to pleasing the producer, the choreographer, the director. Every waking hour I’d twisted, shaped and forced movement from my aching body—and then spent even more time half asleep getting poked, prodded and painted into costumes and makeup. To me, being a prima ballerina had felt a lot like being trapped inside one of those tiny figurines glued to the top of a jewelry box. I was done spinning round and round for applause. So I found myself joining the exclusive club of washed-up twenty-somethings generally restricted to teen heartthrobs, one hit wonders and injured professional athletes. I had no idea what to do next. Not a clue. Yet. But I had to believe I’d figure it out. Until then, I’d left New York City to come stay at our house off the coast of Massachusetts on Naugatuck Island. Because, before you start feeling bad for me— if you even had started at all—let me explain that my family has money. Loads of it. I was the original poor little rich girl, pruned and shaped like a bonsai tree to the delight of my parents. Or at least my mother. My father was as absent as a business mogul could be, which was to say very. “Don’t make us late.” My mother’s voice wound its way into my bedroom again. “Theo’s joining us.” “Theo?” “Theo Bartright.” Ah, of course my mother would have arranged for the most eligible bachelor in New York to be at this casual little dinner party. She was a force of nature. I’d met Theo a few times in the city, and I remembered he’d mentioned his family had a house on Naugatuck, too. About five years older than me, he had all the smooth sophistication of a CEO who knew he could have any woman in any room he walked into. I hadn’t felt a spark when we’d met before, but who knew, maybe that was because I’d been in a decidedly un-sparky funk. I’d been unhappy for a long time. I looked at my reflection in the mirror. I saw blue eyes, blond hair and what most others would describe as a slender frame. But where others saw beauty, I saw imperfections. I’d had years of training in doing it, identifying flaws so they could be eradicated. I noticed the small, dark fleck in my right eye, the freckles make-up artists always caked over, the couple of hairs in my eyebrow that kicked up in the

wrong direction as if on a dare. I saw everything I’d worked hard to tamp down over the years. I was sick of tamping myself down. I’d been doing it for such a long time I’d grown quite good at it. But it was time to change. Change didn’t happen overnight, though. I looked at the dress I had on, a simple cotton one, pretty much a long T-shirt. But my mother wanted me in the blue dress. Anything else would mean a fight. “Why don’t you just cut a hole in a paper bag and stick it over your head!” she’d shriek if I didn’t change my outfit. So, I did as I was told. At least for one more night. I had, after all, chosen to move back into my family’s summer home. Soon I’d look into getting my own place with the money I had saved up, plus my trust fund. Yeah, I was one of those people. But you may have heard the saying “money can’t buy you happiness”? Little known fact: my family trademarked that phrase. Growing up with absent parents, looked after by a rotating mix of nannies and au pairs, my sister Margot, brother Ian and I had done our best to raise ourselves. But that approach never worked out too well. Margot had never met a drug she didn’t like. She’d make super best friends with whatever new one crossed her path. They’d move in together and get all absorbed in the relationship until the inevitable breakup. That was part of why I’d come back to Naugatuck, too. Margot was 32 now and had a daughter, my niece Eloise. Just five years old, Eloise was spending the summer with her grandmother on the island. It sounded picturesque, until you also added into the story line her absent father and her mother in rehab. I didn’t know much about parenting, but I figured I could maybe earn a few karmic points by being around to try to fight the endless cycle of screwing up the kids in our family. At least I could take Eloise to the beach a few times. At 27, Ian wasn’t doing much better. He’d holed up in our crumbling ancestral mansion in Scotland. As far as I could tell, he drank the days away, a recluse. A boating accident when he’d been 14 had left him with burns and nerve damage. He’d fought like a beast for the first couple years, determined to walk again, but then something had changed. He’d given up, settled down into a wheelchair and tucked himself away where it rained and stormed and the sea almost always raged gray. He barely even took my calls anymore, and I was his beloved baby sister. So that meant that I was the functional one, the showpiece, the successful ballerina and star of the family. Dressed now dutifully in blue, I gave a twirl in front of the full-length mirror. I sure knew how to put on a show. Painting on a smile, I tucked back into my typical role as pleaser. It would make the evening a whole lot

easier. “Whatcha wearing?” Eloise bounced in, already in her jammies. She had all the exuberant energy of her storybook namesake, Eloise of the Park Plaza hotel. And now they had another thing in common, too—absent parents. I bet my sister hadn’t planned that, though. “Hey, bunny.” I gave her a hug. She always seemed eager for one, yet surprised when she got it. “That’s so pretty,” she marveled, running her hands down the skirt of my dress. After the tightly nipped in waist, the fabric pooled down in graceful, asymmetrical lines. My mother did have good taste. “Can I pick your shoes?” She ran to the closet. “You don’t have sandals?” She poked around, clearly disappointed with what she found. “Mom likes sandals with heels. And she paints her toenails to match her dress. Unless she doesn’t.” Eloise stood for a moment, seeming to remember her mom’s bad days, the days when she couldn’t quite make it off the couch. “My toes are ugly,” I interrupted her train of thought. With any luck this bout of rehab would stick and Eloise wouldn’t have to see those kinds of days anymore. “Everyone thinks of ballerinas as pretty, but that’s because they’ve never seen their toes.” “Really?” she asked, now fascinated by my hideous deformity currently covered in delicate silver flats. “Can I see?” “Why don’t you pick me out some lipstick,” I offered instead. As she bounded off to take me up on my offer, my phone dinged with a text.

WHITNEY: Where are you? Get here already. Theo’s dying to see you.

OF COURSE WHITNEY was on the island, and of course she’d be at the club dining with us tonight in the private room Mother had reserved. I’d known her since middle school. Whitney came from the right sort of family with the right sort of pedigree; everything that mattered in my mother’s world. There wasn’t anything bad about Whitney. It was just that I’d known her for 13 years and still felt like we didn’t know each other at all. Honestly, it made it really easy to hang out with her and others like her. The only problem was it made me feel so numb I wanted to scream. Eloise came running back with the brightest, most electric shade of pink lipstick I didn’t even realize I owned. After carefully applying it, we headed downstairs. I

made sure she went first so I could covertly blot the neon pink as I followed. “There you are.” In a slim black pantsuit with a clutch purse, my mother waited, poised and ready, on a settee in the entry. She was breathtakingly good at lacing even the simplest of statements with nuanced guilt. She really should write a handbook, The Guide to Passive-Aggressiveness in a slim pocket volume to be kept on hand at all times. “Can’t I come?” Eloise whined. She clearly hadn’t learned yet that a “no” from grandmother meant “no.” “Nanny’s about to put you to bed,” Mother explained firmly, looking curtly to the woman waiting in the shadows. Help changed so frequently that my mother had the habit of calling them by their function. The name of this particular nanny in no way was actually Nanny. I kissed Eloise good night, grabbed a wrap and we drove over to the club. Or, rather, Ronald drove us over to the club. He’d been driving our family on the island for twenty years. After ten, you got called by your first name. Mom and I didn’t speak on the way over, which was fine with me. I’d always been comfortable with silences, sometimes more so than with conversations. I’d never been good at small talk and that was all most people I knew seemed to want to have. Not that I was dying to have heart-to-hearts, either. In my limited experience, trying to share everything in a truthful, soul-bearing way made most people uncomfortable. They wanted the final dish, not all the nitty-gritty that went into making it. Everyone liked sausage, but they didn’t want a tour of the factory. The club looked exactly like it had seven years ago, the last time I’d set foot on Naugatuck. Impeccably groomed, the grounds glowed with lit topiaries. My mother lunched there frequently and planned to have my wedding there one day in the not-too-distant future. All that was missing was my groom. Margot had nearly driven her into an early grave by having a baby without getting married, and who knew when Ian would emerge from his darkness. All her hopes for the society wedding of the season, New York Times announcement and all, were now pinned on me. In through the lobby, past the politely nodding heads of staff and the polished smiles of family acquaintances, we arrived at a private room set with a table for twelve. “It’s the prima ballerina!” One of my mother’s friends gave me a brittle hug and two air kisses. I made my way through the group, mostly remembering their names, until finally reaching Whitney and Theo standing at the back. Whitney looked skinnier than ever in a tiny, gold lamé sleeveless top and black palazzo pants. I bet she could cut a tomato with her wrist.

Theo looked like he could have a magazine spread on him, and he had. He was running a hot new hedge fund, adding millions to his family’s millions. As one of the young and fabulously elite of Manhattan, he’d been featured in many pieces on “movers and shakers” or “ones to watch.” He had coiffed blond hair, a cleft chin and an undeniable air of wealth and power. He smiled at me in greeting, but before he could get in a hug Whitney swooped in between us. “Look at you, you fatty!” Whitney snorted at her own joke, making herself laugh as she gave me a hug. “What are you, like 110 pounds?” “I don’t know.” I shrugged, uncomfortable as ever with Whitney’s weight obsession. She’d been competing with me since the day we met. Only that didn’t seem like the right description since it took two to compete, and the only goal I had was dance. Or used to have. I was going to eat dessert tonight. “How lovely you look.” Theo leaned in and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Good to see you.” I smiled at him, meaning it. Maybe he’d be fun to spend some time with this summer. I’d just have to make sure my mother didn’t find out about it. One whiff of romance between the two of us and she’d book the club for our wedding. I could almost hear her whispering in my ear, “A girl could do a lot worse than Theo.” We sat and ate. Or at least I ate. Few of the other women did, preferring to push around their courses with the real silverware. I could still remember the day I’d found a book on my mother’s shelf by the inimitable Helen Gurley Brown. She’d advised no more than 1,000 calories a day and always eating alone. With others, you could drink or nibble enough to be social, but not actually eat. It seemed everyone was following Helen’s advice. Except for me. As I actually ate a few bites of filet mignon, so delicious it melted in my mouth, I swear I got some dirty looks. And a few admiring ones from Theo. “So, are you planning on spending the entire summer on the island?” he asked, sounding hopeful. “I’ll be out here almost every weekend.” “I think so.” “And then will you head back to the city again once the summer’s over?” “I don’t think I’m moving back there.” “Really? Are you going to join another dance company?” “I’m not sure.” I focused on my plate, the fork, the window beyond the table. I had no answers and clearly hadn’t prepared the pat responses to cover. “Well, it’ll be nice to see more of you this summer.” Theo let me off the hook, and I relaxed a little. “You know, I’ve gone to see you dance. Quite a few times, actually.” He looked down into his dinner plate, a flash of something passing over his face. Shyness? From the brash hedge-fund manager who’d taken Manhattan by

storm? Couldn’t be. “Thank you.” “You’re quite good.” He sipped his drink, then laughed at his own remark. “That’s stupid to say. Of course you’re good. You can’t perform at your level without being good.” “No, that’s nice of you to say.” “Well, if you are going to be around…” He cleared his throat. “I’d love to show you my new boat.” “Oh, Theo’s new toy.” Whitney laughed, tossing her head back as she did it, her blond hair cascading down. “He calls it a boat.” She leaned across him to clarify. “What he means is yacht. You’ve got to see it.” I nodded agreeably, taking a sip of lemon water. Was it wrong to be bored of yachts? I’d been on more than a few. Surrounded by luxury all my life, I guess either I didn’t appreciate it and took it for granted, or I’d just missed the gene that made me crave that kind of thing. The more my last boyfriend had showered me with over-the-top displays of affection, the more I’d wanted a simple “I love you.” “Ooh, so pretty!” Exclamations arose as white-shirted waiters brought in a sixtier cake. As elaborate as a wedding cake, each layer shimmered in a different summer pastel with candied violets artfully arranged to look as if they’d drifted down and settled along the outer edges. The largest candied violet of them all sat atop the smallest, most delicate tier, lifted above the rest. “Thank you so much for coming tonight.” My mother rose and said a few words, toasting the group, the summer, and my brief visit on the island before I returned to the stage. Drop the mic. That’s how it was done people. See how expertly she passive-aggressively committed me to return to the career I’d clearly and repeatedly explained that I’d left for good? “I want the top,” I found myself declaring in a loud, demanding voice I didn’t even know that I had. Whitney burst out laughing as a member of the waitstaff looked at me, questioning. “You’d like the top? Of the cake?” The waitress pointed to the top tier with the giant violet. “Ah, yes,” I continued, rising up awkwardly to attempt to help her. I didn’t want to sound like a diva. But, yes, in fact I did want that piece of cake. I was done being the sugary decoration on the top. It was high time that I ate and enjoyed the damn thing myself. As I sat down with the cake, sugared violet and all, I earned a few giggles and whispers around the table. But somehow my mother’s laser-like glare didn’t burn the cake into cinders. I tucked into it like it was my job, enjoying each and every

forkful with gusto. “Good cake,” Theo commented, and I nodded with my mouth full. Sometimes rebellions started with the blare and blaze of a cannon shot. Other times they began with a forkful of cake. I was new to this, so I had to improvise with what I had on hand. Whitney watched me like I’d sprouted a second head. “Don’t gnaw your hand off.” She snorted again as I dug into the cake. I smiled instead of throwing the plate at her. I wasn’t angry with Whitney, or anyone else there, really. If anything I was angry with myself. When I looked around, nothing represented choices I’d made. But whose fault was that? Not Whitney’s. It was on me that I’d spent my whole life on autopilot and only now looked around and wondered what was going on, exactly? I could barely even remember deciding to become a professional ballerina. I think when I’d been around four or five years old our nanny had taken Margot and me to see “The Nutcracker.” I remembered being transported by it, the lights, the costumes, the magic. I’d loved the escape, fantasy and beauty of the world I glimpsed. That dream had proved so much more seductive than real life. But now here I was at 25, waking up. After dessert, with a full belly—what a strange feeling—I rose and mingled with the rest of the group, drifting out into the main bar and lounge of the club. I chatted and was chatted to, air-kissed and was air-kissed in return. My mother was happy to show me off, the one child she could. The whole time I had the distinct feeling that I could easily be replaced by a cardboard cutout, a life size Sophie with a stand at the bottom so it could be propped up. No one would notice the difference between that and me. I had the same frozen smile, the same hair nicely done and sprayed in place. When I got home, I decided, I was going to throw out my hairspray. Every can. For a ballerina, that meant a declaration of war. In a momentary lull, I saw my chance and took it. I slipped into the shadows and out a French door, to the deck overlooking the ocean. Standing in the darkness, a breeze caressing my skin, the water rushing below, I was alone at last. I’d felt alone inside, surrounded by family and friends. To actually be alone with the company of my thoughts felt infinitely more satisfying. Stretching out before me, the ocean waves tumbled and churned. I wondered if across the Atlantic my brother Ian might be doing the exact same thing, looking right back at me from the other side. My heart hurt for him. I could still remember him as a boy, so full of mischief, so quick to laugh and cook up a brilliant plan to get us all in trouble. Now he’d shut himself down, walled himself in.

The waves kept crashing, impervious, soothing, washing more memories over me. Those, I fought hard not to have. They were painful, like the ones of my brother Ian smiling, laughing and running on the beach. But they were more personal, more private. It had been seven years since I’d last seen Liam. I hadn’t heard a word from him during all that time. Even with social media casting its web thick and wide, either he never went online or he and I traveled in such different circles we didn’t share a single connection. It was as if he’d vanished without a trace. At first I’d held on to mementos of our summer together. I’d slept in his shirt until I couldn’t even imagine I could smell him anymore. I’d read and re-read the little notes he’d given me. But over the years, I’d thrown almost all of it out, frustrated by how much he continued to mean to me. It turned out getting rid of stuff didn’t change that. The one thing I’d kept was a necklace he’d given me. The first time we’d ever sat out on the beach together, I’d played with a scallop shell. They were all over Naugatuck, a dime a dozen. This one hadn’t been all that remarkable, but it was whole, unbroken, small and white. I kept messing with it nervously while we talked, running my fingers along the rippled edge, tossing it from palm to palm, focusing my attention on it instead of the gorgeous man beside me. The next time I tossed it from one palm to the next, he’d caught it mid-air. “You don’t have to be nervous talking to me,” he’d assured me. “You can say anything you want. It won’t faze me and I’ll never tell anyone. You can trust me completely.” He’d kept that shell, preserved it and put it on a chain for me to wear. In time, I’d given him my trust. He’d given me all of his in return. And then I’d broken it. Hands against the railing, I closed my eyes. Not for the first time that evening I focused on breathing. In and out, in and out. With all my training in dance, I could discipline my body with almost frightening intensity. It was my mind and emotions I had difficult controlling. Seven years should have made a difference. I shouldn’t still be able to recall our time together as vividly as if it had happened yesterday. I shouldn’t be able to picture the shape of his broad shoulders or the exact shade of his blue eyes. I shouldn’t be able to remember how he smelled and how dizzy-giddy I felt just sitting next to him. That should have faded by now. I was sure it had for him. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to return to Naugatuck. I hadn’t set foot on the island in the intervening years. There was always a good excuse. I didn’t even have to go searching for one with the constant whirlwind of rehearsals and performances. But somehow when all the confetti of my life floated down and settled, when I looked around it was Naugatuck to which I wanted to return.

I told myself it wasn’t because of Liam. It couldn’t be. For all I knew, he’d moved. He’d grown up on the island, sure, but people moved all the time. When I’d known him he’d only been 20 years old. The chances that he’d stayed put through his mid-20s were slim to none. He could be married. People did that at 27. He could have kids. I forced myself to think these thoughts, inserting them into my mind with an angry determination. Because there was a chance now that I was back that I would run into him. It could be at a farmer’s market. He’d be giving his little boy a piggy-back ride while his beautiful wife chose perfectly ripe strawberries. Or I might see him at the beach with his arms around someone fresh, hopeful, and full of life, like the sun to my shadow. They might be locked in an embrace. I’d see him looking at her the way he used to look at me while I passed by without attracting a moment’s notice. I tried to ground myself in reality, but standing there in the dark night, the warm summer air mingling with the sea breeze, all I could remember was the way Liam used to look at me. As if I’d opened up a whole new world for him. As if I was a delight, unexpected and rare, a treasure he wanted to hold and cherish for the rest of his life. “There you are!” Whitney and Theo declared, arm in arm as they sauntered onto the porch. “You naughty thing, sneaking off like that. Get yourself back inside.” As easy as that, I was led back into the room of people and lights and conversation that meant so much less to me than the memory I left back outside in the night.



Sunlight streamed through the crack at the bottom of my shades. It had to be

mid-day. I’d finished my shift at the firehouse six hours ago, come home and crashed. When you worked 24 hours on, 48 hours off, you grabbed sleep when you could. Thankfully, I found I didn’t need a lot of it. A four-hour burst could fuel me for a long time. That came in handy when we had a busy night like we’d had last night. At one a.m. we’d helped an older man having a stroke. At two thirty a.m. we got the call that a garbage truck had broken a hose and hydraulic fluid was pumping all over the street. Then at four a.m. there’d been an actual fire, a small one started by candles at what looked like quite an interesting house party. As a firefighter, I caught glimpses into the most private aspects of people’s lives. No one planned on having an emergency, and sometimes lives got opened up at the most interesting moments. Most of the guests at this particular get-together had gone by the time we arrived, but the toys they’d been using were still on full display. We found whips, chains, nipple clamps, ball gags and a whole lot more. The fire out, all danger averted, the guys in my department had laughed and joked like teenagers. Pointing to a toy, one had asked, “How the hell do you use that?” I’d shaken my head, laughing along and saying nothing. But it wasn’t because I didn’t know the answer to the question. I knew several ways to use that toy, with great success on a willing sub. But that wasn’t for my fire department buddies to know. I kept my worlds separate. Everyone on Naugatuck knew me as a good guy, a local born and bred on the island, always ready with a smile and a helping hand. The guys I worked with wanted me backing them up on a call, or coming over to their houses for barbeques on days off. Everyone knew that I headed to Boston once a month, and it was true that while visiting I’d see my younger brother Pat and

other friends who lived there. No one knew about the rest of it, though, the dark, sexual play at private clubs with cages and dungeons. And that world knew nothing of my other identity. There, I was simply known as “Master.” Rolling to the side, I checked my phone. I’d missed a couple of texts, one inviting me to a party that night. A girl I’d met a couple nights ago at a bar had gotten in touch. I guess she’d figured out I wasn’t going to track her down so she thought she’d try her luck getting in touch with me. Yawning, I put my phone down and decided to go out for a run. The day was mostly sunny. Piercing brightness reflected off of dazzling waves punctuated by moments of cloud cover. My head always cleared when I ran, in sync with the rhythm of my feet. Sex and exercise, those were the two best ways I knew of to turn off my brain. Drinking was the third, of course, but that made me feel too much like my dad. I didn’t want to be yet another in a long line of Irish drunks. Even as I thought it, I could hear my mother telling me not to speak ill of the dead. He’d passed two years ago and, sinner that I was, I mostly felt glad. When he’d died of a massive heart attack, everyone had shared condolences, casseroles and sympathy cards, and he’d left an undeniably gaping hole in our lives and community. No one but my mother, my younger brother and I knew what a rat bastard he could be in private. The worst he’d ever gone after me was when I was 14. I’d f*cked up real bad, stealing a boat with some friends and getting caught out in a storm. We’d all lived, but one of us had been crippled for the rest of his life and somehow, even though it hadn’t been my idea, I’d been the one to blame. I was the one who’d lived on the island my whole life and I should have known better. Even a day like today that smiled down at you with a baby’s innocence could turn in an instant into the devil’s own snarl. That night had left some scars, but mine weren’t from the storm. I circled around on my run, heading back. A pretty woman ran past me and I smiled at her, making her gait wobble. Breathing in the fresh, bracing ocean air, I reminded myself that there was no sense dwelling on the past. Nothing could change what had happened. All I could do was try to make today as good as possible. I decided to start by checking in on my mother. “Hey, Mom!” I called out as I sauntered in the front door. Funny how nothing in the house had changed much from childhood. It was just her living there now, what with my father gone and my younger brother Pat in Boston. Good thing I lived close, as in on the same property. Yes, technically I lived with my mom. Wasn’t that the most unappealing thing a woman could hear a man say? But wait. My family owned two acres of beachfront property on Naugatuck Island, the wealthy, exclusive playground for billionaires.

Did that sound better? I also paid monthly rent and utilities and took care of all of the upkeep, big and small, for both properties. And while the main house was up by the road, I lived in a separate cottage with complete privacy down by the ocean. I have to admit, I thought the set up was pretty sweet. There was no way our family could ever own anything like it if we were actually in the real estate market. A nurse plus a firefighter’s salary would maybe rent an apartment on the outskirts of town. Everyone and their brother had tried to buy from us, and the last guy had offered seven million. But my mom didn’t want to sell and I was fine with that. It was our home and had been in our family for over a hundred years. Neither of us saw any reason to change that. “You just getting up?” She turned and offered me her cheek for a kiss. She was baking something. I could see why so many people had looked at our family with envy when I was growing up. My father had seemed like a stand-up guy, a firefighter with a big personality always up for a laugh, and my mother had seemed like a saint. They’d been right about her. “Naw, just went for a run. Can’t you tell how stinky I am?” I raised my arm as if to give her the chance to get a whiff. “Get out of here! Go shower!” She shooed me away, laughing. “I’ve got my birthday group coming over.” “Whose birthday is it today?” “Not today, we celebrate once a month for everyone who has a birthday that month.” I nodded, sneaking a muffin from the cooling rack. “Hey, that’s for the girls.” She caught me and tried to smack me away but I was too fast. “S’good!” I cupped my hand under my mouth to catch crumbs as I stuffed the whole thing in my mouth. My mother could bake. Heading to the side door, I called over my shoulder, “I’m going to the store. What can I get you?” “Butter,” she responded, likely having anticipated my question. I tried to get her shopping done for her most days. “Onions—the yellow ones. And some sage if they have it. Fresh.” “Butter, onions, sage,” I repeated, opening the door. “Got it.” “Yellow onions!” she called after me. “Love you!” I waved, making my way along the path from her house to my cottage. It was good to see her getting so social. She’d maintained a strict public/private split for many years. In the past, the friendly, kind, public woman didn’t have people over too often because she never knew when her husband would turn up a beast in private, knocking over anything in his path with an unquenchable rage. Now she could have over her birthday group without any fear whatsoever. At home I showered and threw on some clothes, not unlike the ones I’d worn

running. I didn’t dress up much. A lot of the men vacationing on Naugatuck wore seersucker in shades of pastel pink and green. I’d even seen some wearing silk scarves like they were in a Polo Ralph Lauren ad. For all I knew they actually were. Whatever. It didn’t matter. I’d learned that our two worlds didn’t mix, not really. Wealthy vacationers and local year-rounders could co-exist and occasionally mingle, partying together and serving each other’s needs in various ways. But really we were oil and water. The sooner people learned that, the better. For me it didn’t happen until I was 20, but then I’d learned it in a big way and I’d never forgotten. Windows down, tunes blasting, I rolled my way to the grocery store. We had no big-brand chains on our island, just a few small markets, and usually I liked it that way. Except in June, July and August. Then it took five times as long to get anywhere and basically driving at all became impossible. So I forced myself to turn my expectations for transit time way down low and make a phone call. A woman I’d met through a friend was spending the summer working on the island. She’d left me three voice messages and I had yet to return any of them. “What’s up?” I asked as she picked up on the first ring. “How’ve you been? I miss you. What are you doing tonight? Are you off work?” She asked a lot of questions. Thankfully, she didn’t wait for me to respond to any of them. She told me she was waiting tables at a clam shack on the East side of the island. I agreed I’d stop by tonight and say hello. “I’m off at eleven!” she promised. “Great.” I ended the call. I swear I didn’t lead women on. I was always honest about my feelings or lack thereof. I wasn’t trying to be a player. I didn’t want to get serious with anyone and I’d be the first to admit it. But for some women that seemed to add fuel to the fire. I’d tell them I wasn’t interested and they’d double down, deciding they would be the one to teach me a lesson in love. What they didn’t know was I already had fallen in love, once. It had sucked. It had felt like my insides had been scooped out with a melon baller. Sure, I’d spent a couple months high as a kite, whirling around in a heady rush unlike anything I’d ever felt before or since. But for every minute of high, I’d paid for it tenfold with hours of scrape-me-off-the-bottom-of-a-shoe low. It wasn’t worth it. Another call came in, from a guy I worked with enjoying the same 48 hours off rotation. “You in tonight? Keg by the breakers?” “Sure,” I agreed. Sounded as good an option as any. “Knew I could count on you.”

That was an easy call. I liked being that guy, the reliable, dependable, good-time guy people thought I was. I didn’t want the darkness I sometimes felt within. I didn’t want to be the guy chased by sadness, even despair over painful memories. Nor did I want to be a man who only felt truly alive in the midst of an intense Dom/sub session, wielding my power to force another, then another org*sm. I wanted to be the guy with nothing much on his mind, no worries, just a quick, funny one-liner or an observation about the Red Sox. That was the kind of guy who would have a wife and kids someday, maybe even someday soon. I could picture it in the abstract. Maybe she’d be a nurse like my mom or a teacher. I’d coach little league and we’d have other families over on weekends. I told myself I’d get there in time. With hard work, I could become an emotional lightweight, a shallow reflecting pool. Then I could chart a direct path right to the safe, if a little boring, harbor of domestic tranquility. Finally at the mini market, I grabbed a basket and started the rounds. Even during peak tourist season when the crowds swelled, I couldn’t head anywhere without running into a bunch of people I knew. “Liam! How’s it hanging?” Right off the bat, I saw a guy I’d met on a remodel project last year. He was an electrician and let me tell you, you could do worse than work as an electrician on an island of billionaires who had no idea how to take care of their homes. The guy cleaned up. We caught up quick and he mentioned another project he had going with a different contractor. “Good guy, I’ll introduce you.” And just like that I got another contact. I could probably make enough money with just carpentry work if I devoted enough time to it. But I liked the adrenaline of being a firefighter, the guys at the station, the camaraderie. And, hell, the handful of times we actually got to rescue someone, that felt pretty damn good. I grabbed a six-pack and some yellow onions. I had no idea what sage was but a cute girl working there had no difficulty showing me. She bit her lip as she looked up at me and batted her eyelashes. But she couldn’t be much more than 20. She’d probably want to Snapchat and take selfies every three seconds. I thanked her and went to grab myself some protein bars, then butter for my mom. “Hey, how’s the baby?” I greeted the cashier up front, a girl I’d gone to high school with. “You’ve got to catch up.” She laughed, patting her tummy. “Baby’s 18 months old and I’m pregnant again.” “Really?” My eyebrows must have shot up, surprise registering all over my face because she cracked up again. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“No, I just…” It seemed like she and Tom had only just gotten married. They’d both been a year ahead of me in school. But then she’d been pregnant already at the wedding. That had been a fun night. I shook my head. “Anyway, congratulations.” “Yeah, thanks.” She brushed hair out of her eyes as she swiped bar codes, looking tired. “How’s life with you? Having fun?” I could hear the edge to her voice, half mocking, half jealous. She was one of the smug, married parents of the world on one side of the fence with a proprietary lock on all that was meaningful in life. And yet at times I bet she still desperately wished she could hop on over where the grass was greener and party carefree and reckless. But life didn’t let you do both. “Same old, same old,” I answered honestly, sliding my credit card and bagging the groceries myself. The store was busy and nothing drove me more crazy than the number of spoiled shoppers who stood there like their hands were tied behind their backs waiting until someone came and put their food into a bag for them. “When are you going to settle down, Liam?” she asked, handing me my receipt. “You’re not getting any younger.” “I’m not 90 yet.” I winked at her and smiled before I turned to go. She’d have no way of knowing that her words hit home. I knew I was young and had plenty of years in front of me to spend any which way I wanted. But I could see change happening all around me. Last year my buddy Chase had gotten married. That one had shaken me up more than I’d like to admit. He’d been on the boat with me that day everything had gone wrong. When you went through something like that as kids, you became like brothers. He and I had stayed close through the years, even when he’d moved to California and then Arizona to train for competitive swimming. Then, just like that, he’d fallen in love with a physical therapist named Emma and gotten married. I’d met her and quickly seen why he’d done it. She was lovely and gorgeous and the two of them looked at each other like no one else was even in the room. But it still left me with a strange sense of…what just happened? Like I was at a party with my friends and we were all jamming to the same song, but then one silently slipped off into a new groove. It made me wonder who else would sneak out when I least expected it. Little Miss Sage was there as I exited the store, trying to wrangle some stray carts. Grocery bag tucked under one arm, my firefighter brawn came to the rescue, taming the carts in no time flat. “Thank you so much.” She looked up at me all rosy, flushed and appealing. “You’re my hero.” “Nothin’ to it, ma’am.” I pretended to tip an imaginary cowboy hat and she

giggled. “Do I know you?” she asked, brimming with fresh, youthful eagerness. “You look familiar.” “I live here.” I shrugged. “Ooh, year round?” she asked, like it was glamorous. “Yup, so I’ll likely see you sometime soon.” I headed off to my truck, knowing I’d passed up an opportunity. She might be as old as 22 or 23, on the island for the summer and ready for a good time, ripe for the picking with none of the messiness that could result from hooking up with a local. The island got real small off-season. Now was the time to take advantage of the carnival atmosphere of summer. Problem was, that was exactly how my father would have thought. He took full advantage of his big, Irish, dashing good looks and made the most of seasonal opportunities. I had his blood running through my veins, but that didn’t mean I had to act the same way. I revved up my truck, waited for a couple of ladies chatting to get out of the way, then waited for several more people with carts to clear out before I could merge into the line to leave the parking lot. Tomorrow I’d make my trip at six a.m. This was total bullsh*t. Across the lot, I caught a glimpse of a woman getting into a car. There was something about the way she’d swept her hair up into a careless bun, tendrils escaping down the bare nape of her neck. And the way she moved, fluid, graceful, languid. It reminded me of Sophie so hard I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me. But there was almost no chance it was actually her. Sophie hadn’t been back to Naugatuck at all in the past seven years, at least not to my knowledge. That had nearly driven me crazy the first summer without her, the thought that she might be on island and I just didn’t know. I’d hardly slept at night knowing she might only be a mere mile away. But as far as I knew she hadn’t come back, then or since. The woman was inside her car now and the flow of traffic was moving so I could finally exit and, no, I was sure that couldn’t have actually been Sophie Douglas in the parking lot at the grocery store. But something about that woman made me think of her. It had been years, but I could still picture Sophie so clearly, laughing in the sunshine the way only I could make her laugh. Dancing in the waves like a water nymph come up to land for a brief, enchanted moment. Having an org*sm for the first time, blinking and looking at me like I was a god. And that was exactly how she’d made me feel. I remembered the first time I’d seen her dance. It had been at the end of the summer before we’d gotten together, when she was 17 and I was 19. I’d known who

she was through her brother Ian, but she’d always just been his younger sister, a cute and sweet little kid. But that all changed in an instant. Some guy I’d known had asked me to lend a hand throwing together the set for a show. Sophie had been talked into doing a performance with a local youth dance group, even then like a star gracing the stage of armatures. I’d headed down to the local theater with my tool belt. When I’d walked in, she’d been up on stage rehearsing, so absorbed in dancing that she wasn’t aware I’d entered. Without making a conscious decision, I’d slipped into a seat in the back row and watched her. I’d never seen anything like it. She moved with such fluidity and purpose, such clarity and yet subtle grace. It was like sunlight had touched down and taken shape as a girl. I’d known nothing about dance, and I still didn’t, but I knew magic when I saw it. There was something about her when she moved, something you couldn’t take your eyes off of. When she’d stopped, panting with effort and taking a long swig of water, I’d managed to slip out before she realized I was there. She’d come back the following summer. I’d made sure our paths crossed straight away and we never looked back. Until she left at the end of that summer, never looking back at me to pursue her dance career. Which was wildly successful, so I’d heard. I made sure to never look her up. I didn’t want to see photos of her on the internet. That day I’d seen her dance, mesmerized as I’d been, I hadn’t even gone back later to watch the performance. I hadn’t wanted to share the experience of watching her with other people. I wanted it private, just between the two of us. I could practically hear my father’s voice making fun of me. “She left your ass seven years ago.” He’d told me I’d been a fool to think of Sophie as more than a summer fling. Only he hadn’t minced words, he’d said summer f*ck. If he were in my truck right now he’d knock me upside the head. The thought made me ball my hand into a fist. A passing car beeped and waved. On autopilot once again, I smiled and waved back. I thought I recognized the girls in the car, but I couldn’t be sure. It didn’t matter anyway. I turned the music up. Maybe I’d hit the gym, lift some weights before I headed out for the night. I had energy pumping through me and I needed release. Too bad I’d already gone for a run. That would hit the spot. Maybe I could go for a swim. That was something Chase and I had always had in common, relentless energy we channeled into physical exercise. I guess we still had it in common. Only he had another daily outlet now. I didn’t actually feel jealous or envious of Chase for being married. I was happy for him and I enjoyed my single life. At 27 I was in prime health and got more female attention than any one man deserved. I lived oceanfront on an exclusive

island. I worked with some of the best guys around, loved what I did, and still found time for a couple other side businesses, helping with town fire inspections and doing custom carpentry. I liked being alone and routinely chose it over random hook ups back at my place. That feeling of waking up next to someone you barely knew and didn’t particularly want to see again? Not a good one. But lately I found myself wondering what it would be like to wake up next to someone I actually wanted to be with. But how, exactly, would that work? This imaginary love of my life and future mother of my children would have to be a sweetheart, kind and considerate, someone I could trust and laugh with, sometimes talking, sometimes enjoying an easy silence as we sat together and watched the ocean. And she’d also need to enjoy getting spanked until her ass turned red and her moans shifted from pain to pleasure. Those two sides definitely existed within me. But how, exactly, was I supposed to go about finding the woman who fit the first half of that description, never mind the second? The combo seemed like a tall order, one I shouldn’t even bother wasting my time trying to find. Arriving home, I could already sense a long night ahead of me. With my messed up sleep pattern, I might not fall asleep until close to dawn. I knew I’d manage to keep myself busy. I’d visit that waitress and head to the kegger. But it would all just be a diversion, a distraction, a way to pass time. Nothing matched the high I got in my role as a dom. Focusing, devoting all of my attention and energy, narrowing everything down into laser-like precision, I could make a woman cum so hard she’d black out from her punishment. But it was more enjoyable to force her not to cum, to hold back, denying her release until, finally, under the palm of my hand I commanded her to let go. But that wasn’t going to happen tonight. So I put on a clean shirt and a smile and headed out to keep myself busy. That way I wouldn’t waste any more time wondering if that actually had been Sophie Douglas I’d seen in that parking lot.



“Teach me to dance!” Eloise called out, spinning and twirling along the sand.

We’d been having a patch of perfect June weather, with bright blue skies and only a smattering of white cotton ball clouds scuttling past. Today I’d taken her down to the beach on our property. “You’re doing a great job on your own,” I told her honestly. Though sadly I could still hear the harsh critique of my teachers like background noise in my head. One of her knees had a slight curve to it and her neck wasn’t quite long enough for perfectly classical lines. See how evil all those years of instruction could be, turning a child’s delight into shortcomings? I shook off those critical thoughts honing in on our good time. Standing up, I dusted off my bum. “You want to know how to pirouette?” “Yes!” She jumped up and down. “Most people think it’s all about what’s happening down here.” I gestured below my waist. “With your legs and toes and all that. But the most important thing is to maintain a single point of focus.” She looked at me with confusion and I elaborated, pointing to a blade of grass in the dunes. “There. I’m going to stare at that as I move.” I fixed my point, grounded myself in a balanced pose and began to spin, and spin, and spin again. Eloise clapped and cheered. “Auntie Sophie! I love you!” “I love you, too, bunny.” I stopped and gave her a hug. For a child who’d only been given sporadic love, she sure gave it with generosity. “Do you think I could be a ballerina like you one day?” she asked, hopeful and expectant as she fell out of a clumsy twirl. “I want to be Clara in the Nutcracker just like you.” I remembered the first time I’d performed as Clara at 12 years old. I’d sprained my wrist but kept on dancing, night after night. It was probably phantom pain, but

my right wrist ached at the memory. “I think you can do anything you set your mind to,” I answered her honestly and yet avoided the direct question. It wasn’t that I wanted to discourage her from dance all together. But I wouldn’t wish the joyless, relentless path of a professional ballerina on her. “OK, then you’ll have to start giving me lessons,” Eloise declared, leaving her pirouetting in favor of chasing a bird. “You’ll open your own dance school and I can be your first student.” I watched her weave in and out of the sand, chasing, twirling, then flinging herself down on the warm sand to lie on her back and watch the clouds. So carefree even though she’d already seen too much in her five years. She thought I should be her teacher, but the way I saw it I had a lot to learn from Eloise. What had I been like at five years old on that same beach? Had I danced and flopped and watched clouds? Growing up, I’d never spent as much time on the island as my brother and sister. Even as a child my summers had been filled with competition, securing coveted slots in preparatory programs and academies. But whenever I’d been able to spend a couple of weeks on Naugatuck, I remembered them as heavenly. I’d always loved the ocean, the quaint downtown and the slower pace of life. Then in my preteen years what I remembered most was being in absolute awe of my older brother and his group of friends on the island, Chase, Jax and Liam. They were all larger than life, handsome and funny, and I had to admit I’d followed them around like a puppy. It had always been Liam who took a minute to say hello to his friend’s younger sister. He didn’t tease me like Ian or Jax. He’d ask how my dancing was going and whether I was enjoying it. I remember that striking me, even at 12. No one else ever asked if I was enjoying ballet. That didn’t seem to factor into the equation. They cared about how far I was advancing with it, which roles I’d secured, whose notice I’d attracted. It had been enough for a 12-year-old to develop a massive crush on a 14-yearold. But then the accident had happened. Ian had been rushed to an intensive burn care unit at a specialty hospital in Boston and I didn’t manage to head back to the island for years. “I’m hungry, Auntie.” Eloise plopped her sandy self down next to me. “What do you have to eat?” “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring anything.” She looked aghast. I needed to work on my caretaking skills. I should probably keep snacks with me when I was looking after her. “Come on,” I suggested. “Let’s head back to the house and get you some lunch.” We ambled in together. Her little hand in mine, I felt grateful for the gift of

being an auntie. After a quick bite, I showered and changed into a tank top and shorts. I slipped on a pair of sneakers and with no makeup, my hair pulled back into a simple ponytail, I was ready to go. How delightful to not be trying to impress or compete, no goal big or small to be striving toward. It was just me, heading into town to poke around a bit before I met up with Whitney later that afternoon. She’d invited me to join her for a drink and with nothing else going on, I’d agreed. I grabbed a cruiser bike from our boathouse. We had far too many, kept in way too excellent condition for a house that mainly sat empty and rarely housed bikers. That was my mother, though. She had strict notions about the requirements for a beach house. All forms of recreational equipment needed to be at the ready at all times. You never knew when F. Scott Fitzgerald and company would stop by for lawn tennis. I might roll my eyes, but I knew I had nothing to complain about as I set off on a well-oiled, perfectly inflated bike, heading down a path toward town. Traffic during peak tourist season was horrendous. It was far better to bike, feeling the wind in my hair and arriving in five minutes than sitting behind the wheel of a car, steaming and stewing for twenty. I knew I should wear a helmet and really I wasn’t trying to tempt fate, I just knew the path so well and it wasn’t far at all and really it had always seemed to me that certain rule didn’t apply on Naugatuck. I’d hitchhiked on the island, something I’d never dream of doing anywhere else. I wouldn’t even do it again now at 25. But at 17 my friends and I had hitchhiked as a legitimate form of transit, hopping rides all the time to cross the island. We felt like we knew half the people there, anyway, and nothing bad had ever happened to us. Liam had told me that was stupid, though. I’d stopped hitchhiking the summer I was 18. He and I were together all the time anyway, and I could have sat in traffic for hours with him and not even noticed. Crossing a small bridge over an inlet, I glanced down at the high tide. Over seven years the coastline had altered somewhat. Erosion had worn down the dunes and I noted the bridge had new concrete fortification. I wondered if Liam had changed, too. I knew, of course, he had. Seven years was a long time. But would it be a recognizable sort of change like that inlet, or a whole-scale, washed-away-by-astorm change? And why was I wasting time thinking about it when I’d been the one to walk away? I’d shut him down hard back in the day, as only an 18 year old could, too young and stupid to realize the rare beauty of what I was rejecting. I’d thought people fell in love like that all the time. As if maybe next month I’d feel exactly the same way about some new guy. The promise of professional dance, the opportunity I had

waiting for me in a coveted spot in the New York Ballet Company, plus the vehement objections of my mother had persuaded me to turn him down. My mother had flipped out when I’d told her our plan. Liam had wanted to come with me to New York while I studied ballet. It had been easy for me to dismiss most of her protests. I didn’t blame Liam at all for Ian’s injuries. Sure, they’d both been stupid and stolen a boat and gotten caught out in a storm, but that had been as much Ian’s doing as anyone else’s. And who cared that Liam came from the wrong side of the tracks? That never mattered to me. Where she got me was when she told me it would be unfair to drag Liam off to New York City with me. I’d be busy all the time pursuing professional dance and he’d be a fish out of water. She told me that he belonged back in Naugatuck with his family and friends. He wouldn’t know a soul in New York. He wasn’t a city person and never would be. It wasn’t right to make him tag along on what was essentially my adventure. Breaking hard, I stopped at a street to let traffic pass. I guess I should have expected some of these memories to return when I headed back to Naugatuck. It was why I hadn’t set foot on the island once in the past seven years. I’d wanted to come back, felt a deep yearning, a pull in my soul to the place and the man I associated with it. But I had discipline, maybe too much of it, and a seriously huge capacity for self-denial. Because once I’d said no, I knew it wasn’t fair to Liam to waffle. He needed a clean break so he could move on and find someone else to love. Even though that made me feel like someone had kicked me swift and hard in the gut. But that’s what it meant to truly love someone, didn’t it? You had to let them go. That’s what I told myself when I lay awake at night thinking of him, then fell asleep only to keep doing the same in dreams. The worst thing I could do would be to call him, text him, show up on his doorstep asking for one more kiss. Even though I ached for it so damn badly sometimes I thought I was going crazy. I could have given a heroin addict a run for his money the way I jonesed, obsessed, craved. I’d even made myself a chart, a box for each day. I told myself it would take one year to stop thinking about Liam. I just had to make it one day at a time. Each night I’d cross out a box telling myself time was the only solution. In time, it would hurt less and the truth of my mother’s words would prevail. Seven years later I’d stopped crossing off boxes, but I was still waiting for that magical day when it didn’t hurt anymore. Arriving in the quaint downtown, I shook off the heavy memories and smiled at the charming stores around me. With cobblestone streets and gas lamps, it still looked like a little fishing village from the 1800s. White, purple and blue

hydrangeas bloomed, brick paths wound around white picket fences and wooden benches beckoned with full water dishes at their sides for visiting doggies. It all felt like returning home. I couldn’t believe I’d stayed away for so long. Now that I’d come back, I never wanted to leave. Locking my bike to a rack, I undid my ponytail and ran my fingers through my hair. What weather we were having, with sunshine and a light breeze. I sauntered down the sidewalk, enjoying recognizing the old stores and exploring the new. At a leisurely pace, I let my feet take me where they wanted. Until, toward the edge of downtown, I stopped. The center wasn’t big, only about five square blocks total, and I’d reached a storefront at an outer corner. It stood apart in a detached two-story home, the lower story vacant. I remembered that in the past it had been a boutique with gleaming wooden floors and high ceilings. Peering in, I cupped my hands around my eyes to block out the sunlight. Inside it was dim and hard to see, but I could make out the wooden floors. It looked like it had lain empty for a while. A dust ball the size of a small dog sat in the corner. I tried the doorknob. Of course it was locked, but I wanted to explore inside. Sneaking along the side of the house, I tried a window but it was locked, too. I tried another window with the same result. At the back, I held my breath and tried that knob. Locked. Why hadn’t I ever learned how to pick a lock? I remembered seeing movies where people used credit cards or hairpins, but I had no such skills. Frustrated and disappointed, I made my way around the other side, stopping at a large window to look in again. Behind my back was the ocean, so that meant if you were inside the studio you’d have a view of the water. Studio. I turned the word over on my tongue, realizing I was imagining the space as a dance studio, just like Eloise had suggested that morning. The storefront could become a studio where I could teach dance, maybe working with little kids who hadn’t learned yet to hate and starve their bodies. Maybe I could teach them a love for classical technique, the lines and form of ballet without the harsh punishment for shortcomings? Looking in, I could tell there was something about the space. Dusty and dormant as it lay, it also felt wide open. I could almost hear the floor planks creak under little feet as they moved, and I could picture a piano in the corner. What would it be like, teaching dance? Would I like it? Would I be any good at it? “Excuse me.” A family brushed past me along the walking path. I stepped to the side, then headed to the front again, already embarrassed that I’d seriously contemplated trying to break in. I snapped a quick picture of the realtor’s number with my phone. Maybe I’d give her a call and get some more information. Maybe I wouldn’t.

I hadn’t really been thinking about teaching dance until Eloise mentioned it that morning. Of course it was a natural and easy path for former dancers to pursue, but that was if they still loved dance and wanted to share that passion with others. Me? I’d been feeling like I wanted to get as far away from dance as I possibly could. I’d packed up all my toe shoes, leotards and tights, my hair nets, pins and gel, plus my leg warmers, wraps and ace bandages and put them all into storage. I hadn’t quite been ready to give them away—they’d been in my life every day for as long as I could remember—but I hadn’t wanted any of it anywhere near me anytime in the foreseeable future. Next door, I popped into a coffee shop called Cuppa Joe. In the age of the chain store, I always liked checking out independent shops. This one felt homey and welcoming with a couple of couches and 70s funk playing in the background. “What can I get you?” a friendly, round-faced woman asked at the counter. She looked about my age and vaguely familiar. “A small black coffee, please.” Old habits died hard. Maybe I’d add some sugar afterward, but honestly I liked the taste of it plain when the coffee was good. “Coming right up.” She turned to grab a small paper cup, but then asked, “Do I know you? You look so familiar.” “Maybe,” I agreed. “I spent a couple summers here growing up. I’m Sophie Douglas.” “Douglas…” The woman tilted her head in thought as she filled the cup with coffee. “Are you Ian’s sister?” “Yes, you know Ian?” That hadn’t happened for a while. There’d been a time when everyone had known Ian. He’d been that charismatic kid everyone wanted to be friends with. Girls had started crushing on him early and by the time he’d turned 14 we’d practically needed to fight them off with riot shields. But then the accident had happened and everything changed. “I knew Ian.” She nodded, seeming contemplative. “A while back. I grew up here, so.” She shrugged. “Anyway, how’s he doing?” “He’s…” I looked at the counter, bumping up against my small talk block yet again. Maybe in another life I’d figure out how to bullsh*t and say what people expected, or at least what was required to smooth over stretches of silence. “Sorry to hear that,” the woman supplied, helping me out. “I know he had it tough after he got injured.” “Mmm.” I swiped my card, still not meeting her eyes. It wasn’t that I was ashamed or even awkward about my brother’s struggles. It was that it felt too raw and personal to discuss it, as if I were airing his private pain for others to dissect. He wouldn’t like me talking about him, I knew that much.

“Anyway, I’m Regina.” She handed me my coffee with a disarming smile. “Good to meet you.” “Nice to meet you, too.” I smiled back, honestly meaning it. Her manner seemed so sincere. “Come back soon,” she called after me. “Next time your coffee’s on the house.” “Oh no, you don’t have to do that,” I assured her. “I own the place, so I get to make all the decisions. Even if they’re bad ones.” She cracked herself up with that observation, making me chuckle too as I waved and headed out. That did seem fun, owning your own business, making your own decisions, no one to answer to but yourself. But I needed to slow down. This time yesterday I hadn’t thought at all about opening up my own dance studio. I couldn’t start acting on crazy impulses. I needed to think things through. Already nearly four o’clock, I picked up the pace as I walked the remaining distance to the country club. It wasn’t far, nothing was on the island, but it was fenced off with heavy security for members only and most members arrived in cars. I was sure I looked a little scraggly in my tank top, shorts and uncombed hair, but once I introduced myself as Mimi Douglas’s daughter, they rolled out the red carpet for me, even offering to drive me the remaining 300 yards in a golf cart. “I’m OK,” I deflected their offers for assistance. I guessed a lot of the members were elderly, but come on. I was 25, how lazy would that be? Whitney was already out on the veranda enjoying a drink oceanside. “Fee!” she called out my prep school nickname, standing to give me air kisses. “I thought you’d never come.” “Am I late?” I wasn’t wearing a watch, but last I’d checked my phone I had plenty of time. “I’m just eager to catch up!” She sat herself down, looking dainty and polished in a Lily Pulitzer tunic. “Look at you! So au naturale!” She scrutinized my look, hair tucked behind my ears, not a lick of makeup on my face. I was sure I looked plain to her, but I just didn’t care. I ordered a seltzer water, earning a scowl—no one liked to drink alone—and settled in to a long, gossipy update from her on everyone who was anyone. “No one could believe it!” she declared, looking at me for the appropriate reaction. I hadn’t been listening. I’d been watching a cluster of birds bob and weave with the surf. “That’s amazing,” I echoed her tone, taking a sip of my water. She scrutinized me, suspicious. “You seem different.” “Really? I don’t feel different.” Not yet, anyway. I wanted to, though, very badly. “I can’t put my finger on it.” She gave me another moment of consideration,

then dismissed the thought. “Anyway, it’ll be good to have you here this summer. Theo’s losing his mind. He couldn’t shut up about you after dinner the other night.” “Are you two together?” It just occurred to me to ask. They seemed like they’d make a perfect couple. “As if!” Whitney laughed a bit too loudly. “He’s like my brother. Hello, incest!” “OK.” I didn’t press, but her denial felt a bit forced. “What I was trying to say is he’s already planning a huge party on his yacht this weekend. To impress you, of course. You’ll come, won’t you?” “Sure,” I answered automatically, though I already knew it wouldn’t be my scene. “Perf. We can head over together if you want.” “Great.” My auto-responses proved enough to propel her forward into more gossip. I was either going to have to get a hell of a lot more interested in what Whitney had to say, or I was going to need to make some new friends on the island. I felt impatient for the latter. But I guessed large-scale change didn’t happen overnight. I just wanted to have a conversation where I could say what was really on my mind. A couple of gorgeous, well-dressed women around our age came over to join us. I took the excuse to exit. “Nice to see you, Whitney. I have to get going.” I offered one of my replacements my chair. She took it without giving me much of a glance. “No, stay!” Whitney said, but her heart wasn’t in it. One of the new women was already launching into a juicy story that had her attention riveted. The walk back to my bike seemed to take longer. I felt so restless. I needed my new start to begin right then, that second, only I didn’t know what to do to make it happen. The habits of my life were deep and my instinct responded so easily to them. Without strong opposition, I’d simply float along in response to the strong current of social and family obligations. If I didn’t watch it, I’d probably end up in a relationship exactly like my last one, looking perfect from the outside but perfectly empty inside. I think George had thought he’d discovered the ideal girlfriend, pretty, elegant and never there. My real partner was dance. I’d always been up and out the door for rehearsals and performances, occasionally on the road touring. We never had to spend much time together at all. When we were together, he’d enjoyed having me on his arm for social events, the prima ballerina, so gorgeous and poised. Exactly like the decoration on top of a cake. Unlocking my bike, I swung onto it and headed for home, picking up more speed

as I traveled along the path. The activity felt good. I did miss the punishing workouts, losing myself to sweat and physical exertion through dance. Maybe I’d keep biking, past my house, around the piers, along the yacht club and up to— Who was that driving past me in a truck? Distracted, I steered myself hard left, directly into a sand bank before the guardrail. Managing to get my feet down on the ground to steady myself, I brought my hands to my racing heart. Thank God I was the only person on the path at that moment. Who had that been driving past on the road? That strong jaw and those broad shoulders. Something about the way he palmed the wheel, the way he looked relaxed yet ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice. It had looked like Liam. I closed my eyes and shook my head. I was going nuts, driving into guardrails and hallucinating. It made sense, being back on the island and meeting that nice woman Regina who knew my brother. All of it made the past mingle with the present. Of course I was imagining seeing my long-lost love driving along in a truck. Meanwhile he was probably miles away, maybe hundreds or thousands of miles away. After a few deep breaths, I started cycling again, slower this time and straight home. My heart was still pounding in my chest when I got back, even after I poured myself a glass of water and sat out on the porch looking at the ocean. But I felt too restless for sitting, so I wandered around the house, prowling as if searching for something. My mother had family photos all over, mostly from when Margot, Ian and I were children. She had some professional photos displayed of me in my starring roles wearing so much makeup I barely recognized myself. Then I realized, she didn’t have a single photo of Ian in his wheelchair. He’d been in one for the last 13 years. No wonder he felt so depressed he’d hidden himself away across the ocean. His own mother was ashamed of him. I needed to get out of there. I needed to make a change. Palms sweating, fingers shaking, I pulled out my phone and checked the number on the photo. I didn’t know where it would lead, but it might be a start. The realtor picked up and as soon as I mentioned the property she broke into effusive praise. The space was historic. It was a charmer. It had an ocean view. It was perfect for whatever I had in mind! Even I knew a hard sell when I heard it, and I instantly sensed that there had to be something horribly wrong with the property. Maybe it was built on a sinking swamp, or an Indian burial ground. But I agreed to meet her the next day at ten a.m. so she could show me around. Maybe it was time for me to make my own decision, even if it was a bad one. A project sounded like just what I needed. Something to throw myself into. I needed a distraction. I could already feel myself unraveling with too much time on

my hands. I wasn’t good at sitting around idle. I’d already started seeing things. Specific things, like Liam driving a truck. And looking damn fine as he did it, too. I’d like to sit next to him as he drove his truck, like I did that summer we were together. He’d had an old truck, no bucket seats to keep us apart, and I used to sit right next to him pressed along his side. We couldn’t stand being apart. Even the shortest amount of time or the smallest distance seemed like too much. That had been crazy. That kind of fierce, intense love didn’t last. It was a good thing I’d walked away when I did and pulled the plug on it. It would have been far worse for it to die slowly. Or what if it had gone up in flames? What if he’d come to New York and fallen in love with one of my roommates? I might have come home and found them together and then had that image burned into my brain forever. Shaking my head, I started up the stairs to my room. Yes, I needed to get myself occupied. What I needed was to take on a project, ideally an impossibly big one that would absorb all my time and thought. Otherwise, I’d think way too much about Liam.



Thursday I got a call from a guy I knew who ran fire inspections. He had a good gig, checking out commercial properties and deciding what was and wasn’t up to code. He was stretched thin tomorrow, supposed to be in two different places at the same time, and he wanted to know if I could help him out. Of course I said I would. It made sense to have my finger in that pot, too. You never knew when you might get injured. Work as a firefighter tended toward long stretches of not much punctuated by medical emergencies and false alarms. But every now and then, sh*t went down. It was good to have fallback options like carpentry and inspections. And I knew the fire code like the back of my hand. Before the end of my shift at the stationhouse, I looked up the property I was supposed to inspect the next day. It gave the guys and I a laugh. It was a historic building, one of many on Naugatuck. The historical preservation society had major bees in their bonnets and cared a hell of a lot more about bullsh*t like faithfulness to the original architectural intent than they did about whether or not a building was a death trap. The fact that we’d learned a lot about fire safety in the last 250 years didn’t seem to matter much to them. The building in question dated back to 1789, or at least the foundation and one of the exterior walls. Which meant that any prospective owners were f*cked. You couldn’t do a damn thing to alter historic buildings in general, and if you went back before the 1800s you may as well just hand over your wallet and tie your hands behind your back for good measure. New owners would never get approval from the Naugatuck Historical Society to update the building, but without major upgrades they’d never meet current fire codes and get approval from the city to operate a business. That’s why the building had sat vacant for the past several years. The former owners had been able to grandfather themselves in using old codes, enabling them to operate legally in non-compliance. Not any more, though. Whoever was stupid enough to be looking at this storefront had another thing

coming. I’d feel like a bastard walking in with my strict ultimatums if I hadn’t seen fires up close wreaking complete havoc. As a young kid I’d always thought my firefighter dad was over-reacting, making too big a deal out of fire safety. But then I’d had my own up close and personal experience with fire, and let me tell you once was all it took to put the fear of God in me for the rest of my life. Out on the water with my three friends, all of us dumb teenagers, we’d had no idea that a boat in the middle of the ocean could go up in flames. But engines could catch fire even in the midst of a sudden storm. That’s what had burned Ian. Chase had gone overboard, knocked unconscious by a beam, and I’d made a split-second decision. Down I’d gone after Chase, hauling him up and keeping him alive. But Jax hadn’t been able to help Ian, and now Ian had a lifetime of suffering because of it. I couldn’t change the past, but I could do my part to prevent future catastrophe. Specifically, I could read this new prospective buyer the riot act. He was probably some billionaire who thought he could do whatever he wanted, no respect for any laws. The elements be damned! What were fire codes when you were made of money? I’d set him straight. I left my shift at eight a.m., took a nap for a few hours at home, showered and headed to my noon inspection. It wouldn’t take long, I was sure. The place would be crawling with problems no new owner could possibly solve. The realtor must have already arrived, because the door was open. I turned the knob, walked in and then stood stock still. What. The. f*ck. Sophie Douglas stood there in the middle of the room. She wore a simple white sundress and I almost thought she was a ghost or a figment of my imagination she looked so ethereally gorgeous. But then she turned, looked at me and dropped her bag hard on the floor with a bang. An apple rolled out of it, wobbling slowly across the planks like it was trying to escape but wasn’t sure which way to exit. “Oh, hello!” The third person in the room called out, making no difference to either Sophie or me. “Are you the inspector? I’m Marion Markenson with the realty group. I don’t believe we’ve met.” She inserted herself in front of me, gold jewelry snaking all around her wrists and neck. “’lo,” I muttered, shaking the hand she extended. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” she prompted. “Liam,” Sophie whispered from behind her. So it was Sophie, not her twin, not a figment of my imagination. Sophie Douglas was standing in front of me in a store in Naugatuck. Or at least in the same room as me, though behind the realtor lady who was now standing in front of her.

“What’s that?” the realtor turned. “Liam.” I cleared my throat. “I’m Liam Connolly.” “You’re doing inspections?” Sophie asked. She spoke quietly, as if she were stunned. I just nodded. “Well, we are so glad you made some time in your busy schedule to swing on by here this morning. Or I guess it’s afternoon, isn’t it?” The realtor laughed, clearly thinking she was buttering me up. But my hands felt numb and I didn’t think I could discuss much at the moment, let alone perform a fire code inspection. “’Scuse me,” I muttered, taking the phone out of the pocket of my jeans and using it as an excuse to step out of the building for a minute. “Be right back.” “Of course!” the realtor called after me. I stepped out into the fresh air and hung a right around the side of the building where I leaned against the bricks. What. The. f*ck. What was Sophie doing back on Naugatuck? Maybe that actually had been her I’d seen in the grocery store parking lot the other day. Damn, she looked beautiful. She wore her hair pulled back, simple and neat, and she held herself with such elegant grace. But of course she looked good. She’d studied elegance, I reminded myself, bought and paid for it with years of dance instruction. She’d cultivated and crafted that look. I’d fallen for it hard seven years ago and look where it had gotten me. She’d ditched my ass and never looked back. So now she’d decided to return, had she? Who knew how long she’d been back on Naugatuck, and she hadn’t even bothered to get in touch. Like it was no big deal if she waltzed back here. And it seemed as if she had some sort of half-assed plan to buy this crumbling building. That couldn’t happen, for a whole bunch of reasons. I was sure she had better ways to throw away her trust fund money. Resolute and outwardly composed, I tucked my phone into my jeans and headed back into the store. This time I was prepared. And I was determined to wrap things up quick. “So you need this place inspected for a possible sale?” I pulled the brim of my baseball cap down low, all the better to make no eye contact. Ballpoint pen out, clipboard at the ready, I started making my way into the back of the store. “We’re so excited to have a local interested in snapping up this incredible property!” The realtor twittered along behind me like an eager bird. I shook my head almost imperceptibly at her use of the word “local.” “Local” described yearrounders, the actual working people of the island who took care of all the wealthy idiots who descended during fair weather months. Sophie was as local as the pope was Jewish. “I hate seeing any storefronts in our jewel of a downtown lie vacant, don’t you agree, Liam? It’s such a shame with all the revenue stores can generate for the

town. And Sophie here wants to open a professional ballet academy!” “Just a dance school,” Sophie murmured, lingering behind in the doorway to the back room. I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want to know the details. It killed me to even be in the same room as her. Acting on a hunch, I headed directly over to the fuse box. I figured it would be the best way to get the inspection over with as soon as possible. And look: jackpot. “Right here, that’s your main problem.” I pointed with my pen at the box. The building had knob and tube wiring. That had gone out of style around 1930. There wasn’t even a line item on my checklist for it. I had to write it down in the “other” section. “Oh!” the realtor exclaimed, peering into the box. “That’s historic!” Leave it to a realtor to try to put a positive spin on everything. “The whole place needs to be torn apart and rewired.” I turned my attention to the inspection sheet, checking off a long line of “nos” all the way down. “Well, I’m sure something can be worked out.” The realtor laughed nervously. “How’s the rest of it look?” I kept my eyes on the clipboard as I read off of it, tapping each infraction with my pen. “No illuminated exit signs, blocked egress in back, no fire doors.” I ripped off the realtor’s copy and handed it to her. “You can read the rest.” I strode toward the front exit. I needed to get the hell out of there. “Who can I talk to about this?” That was Sophie’s voice, calling after me. “I’m the end of the road,” I answered without turning around. “There’s not enough money in the world to buy your way out of this problem.” “I wasn’t talking about buying my way out of this problem.” She sounded mad. I paused at the door. “I know some guys who can come take a look at the place,” the realtor interjected nervously, trying to calm down Sophie. “They’ll give you a fair price.” “That’s not the problem.” I turned around to explain it in plain terms. “The problem is this is a historic building. You’re not going to be allowed to make the upgrades this place needs so it won’t be a death trap.” “Is that right?” Anger flashed in Sophie’s eyes as she stared back at me, defiant. “That’s right.” Why was she acting like I was being a jerk? She was the one about to make a huge mistake. I was helping her out. “Did you not know this is a historic building?” “Of course I know that!” Her face was getting flushed. She gestured with a hand in the air like I remembered she used to do when she got upset. “I’m not stupid. I’ve already talked with the historical society.” “Oh, right.” I nodded, remembering her socialite mother. She’d probably

chaired the historical society’s annual fundraiser and all Sophie had to do was make a few calls. “You’re using your mother’s connections.” “What did you say? Using my mother’s connections?” She took a step forward like she was going to slug me, fury coursing through every inch of her body. She was close to me now, close enough to reach out and touch, grab, and shake some sense into her. Or kiss her senseless, leaning her back and devouring her until she started panting, breathless. “I’m going to head out.” I turned, opened the door and exited the building before my thoughts could bleed into reality. “I’m buying this store,” she called after me. “That’s a mistake,” I shouted back as I walked away. “Yeah, well, it’s my mistake to make.” I climbed into my truck, revved the engine and pealed out a little too fast. Adrenaline coursed through my limbs and I had to force myself to slow it down, then stop at a crosswalk while an elderly woman walked along with assistance. What the hell was Sophie doing back on Naugatuck? The girl had all the money in the world and from what I’d heard, she owned the world of ballet. She could go anywhere. Why wasn’t she living it up in New York City or summering on some island off the coast of France? And what was this about opening a dance school? As if she might be considering moving here permanently? That was a bad idea. That wouldn’t work at all. Anyway, it wasn’t going to happen. She couldn’t buy that property. It was a money pit of epic proportions. And even if she did somehow pull off opening up a school, there was no way she’d actually manage it and teach there. Leaving stardom behind at the pinnacle of her career to hole up in some tiny tourist town teaching kids how to plié? I didn’t see that happening. Unless she’d gotten injured. The thought gave me pause. Sometimes professional athletes got cut down in their prime, suddenly struck with a careerending injury no surgeon could mend. Was Sophie in pain? Devastated and trying to piece her life back together? Well so f*cking what, I told myself, kicking my truck back into gear. She’d had the world handed to her on a silver platter. A little humility would probably do her good, give her a taste of how the other 99 percent lived. Only she never would get it, not really. The trust fund she laid her head down on every night buffered her from ever experiencing real life, the way the rest of us did. f*ck. Before the inspection I’d been looking forward to my day off. I had nothing planned, no commitments, my favorite kind of day. Now I wished I was booked solid, or at least at the stationhouse where I’d be so busy it wouldn’t f*cking matter

who’d walked back into my life unannounced. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic, my mind wandered. Sophie looked good. Better than I remembered. She still had that rosy bloom in her cheeks, though the color had drained right out of her when she’d first seen me. She’d looked exactly like I’d felt, like a ton of bricks had fallen down out of the sky onto both of our heads. I headed home. I went for a run at a faster pace and for a longer distance than usual. I made some calls, filling the rest of my afternoon and evening with people to see and places to go. Even on a random Wednesday, during the summer there were always multiple parties from which to choose. I headed out to pick up a friend, then drove out to see a hot girl I’d met last week and her hot friend. We all went out to a beach where other friends were waiting, the girls’ friends, my friends. The girl, whose name might have been Melissa, asked me to rub lotion on her back. I did it with practiced movements, skimming over her lovely skin slow and sensual. She moaned a little and leaned back into me, showing me exactly how much she enjoyed me touching her. And giving me a clear idea of how much more she wanted me to touch. She was pretty, ready and willing. She had an easy smile and seemed to have no complexity at all, no backstory of pain, no dark pull at my heartstrings. She was perfect. I should have taken full advantage, finding somewhere for the two of us to indulge in carnal pleasures. Instead I found myself wandering off and having a chat with a guy I knew who’d just come in from checking his lobster traps. Little known fact: every Massachusetts residence was allowed a non-commercial fishing license to own and operate a maximum of ten lobster traps. He had a sweet 17 ft. whaler, nothing fancy, perfect for tooling around on days off and he’d caught himself two fat lobsters he and his wife could enjoy. I might have to look into getting a boat like that one day. But the honest truth of it was I still hadn’t 100 percent regained my taste for boating. Almost dying in a freak storm could do that to you. He offered me a beer and we sat at the back of his truck for a few minutes, shooting the sh*t. Then Melissa came over wearing nothing but a string bikini on the windswept beach. In the late afternoon, it couldn’t be much more than high of 65 degrees. The girl needed a jacket. “Aren’t you coming back?” she pouted, dusting sand along the asphalt of the parking lot with her toe. “In a few minutes,” I assured her with a smile, then went back to drinking my beer. She flounced around, giving her hips an exaggerated sway as she stalked back to the blanket alone. “That is a fine looking woman,” my buddy observed, watching her go much

more attentively than I was. “You’re welcome to her,” I offered. “Don’t think the wife would appreciate that much.” He laughed. “Anyway, she’s making potato salad and coleslaw tonight to go with the lobster.” He patted his ample stomach. “I’m not passing that up.” “Sounds good to me.” “But I’m an old married man,” he teased, though I knew at the most he was maybe five years older than me. “I’m supposed to be boring. What are you doing passing that up?” He gestured in the direction of Little Miss Pouty. “Yeah.” I drained my beer and nodded. “I’ll go see about that.” “You make it sound like a job, man.” He laughed and folded up the back on his truck bed. “Sometimes it feels like it,” I admitted. Heading home to a nice home-cooked meal with a woman who loved me? That sounded like a pretty good alternative. “Uh-oh, you’re not taking yourself off the market, are you? Going to be a lot of broken hearts around here if you settle down.” “Nothing planned,” I assured him, giving him the one-armed man hug goodbye. I made it through another hour hanging out at the beach. The whole bikini-inthe-wind-chill thing started wearing on my nerves. She finally got the picture and changed course, latching on to a much more willing recipient for her flirtations. I headed to a grill where a guy I knew worked and grabbed a burger. Then a friend and I stopped by a party at a vacation rental. The average age seemed about 22 and everyone was acting like they were extras in Animal House. All I could keep thinking about was the family that owned the property and how much they’d have to fork out to cover the damages. A girl in a sundress dress that ended at her crotch sat herself down right on my lap. “Wanna play a game?” she asked, drunk as a skunk. “Not right now, kiddo.” I patted her leg and helped her to her feet again. “You suck,” she spat out as she wobbled off through the party. That was my cue to leave. Some people waited until the fat lady sang. I waited until the drunk girls started telling me I sucked. The only drink I’d had all night was the beer with my buddy by the beach, so I drove off steady into the night. Unfortunately, my mind was fixed as steady as my wheels and all I could keep thinking about was goddamned Sophie Douglas. Standing there in that simple white dress, looking so much more beautiful with so much less effort than any woman I’d seen anywhere that night. Or ever, maybe. It

f*cking sucked. When I got home, I fixed myself a drink. I didn’t do it often, what with my whole not-wanting-to-be-my-father complex. But I needed a drink that night if I had any prayer of falling asleep. It was hard enough with my firefighter’s clock set to wake at all hours of the night. She’d looked so good it had hurt. So many years had passed, I’d told myself I’d exaggerated her beauty. No one actually looked incandescent, as if lit from a candle within. But she did. She f*cking glowed and she held herself like a sculpture, a posed work of art. Her creamy shoulders exposed in that sundress, her skin like silk, her hair falling in tendrils, long enough to curve at the swell of her breast. Downing the rest of my drink, I decided I’d take a shower and work some heat and steam into my body. Stripped down, I stepped under the pulse of water, turned up almost to the point of scalding. Hands up against the wall, I let the water pound on my back muscles. And my hand traveled down where it inevitably did, wrapping around my already-hard co*ck. Sophie in that dress. Her soft, pink lips slightly parted as she looked at me, eyes open wide. Her slim waist, perfect for slipping my hands around. She was so flexible, so pliable, so eager and ready to explore. At 20 years old, I’d had no idea what I was doing. Her body was a playground and I’d lost myself in it, the two of us learning together what felt good. Now I knew what I liked best. The games I played had grown in sophistication, deepening in emotional and physical complexity as I’d realized I was a dom. I’d had plenty of subs to train and play with over the years, to cultivate and hone my skills. I knew how to own and control pleasure like no other. It was Sophie’s flesh that I wanted to extract it out of. My co*ck swelled in my hand, so hard it was painful but I deliberately delayed my release. Slowly stroking, I pictured her in that white dress, so innocent, looking so virginal. There was a counter in the back room of that historic building. I pictured bending her down over it, my hand at the back of her neck as I held her down. She’d be nervous and unsure, maybe ask me in a timid voice what I was doing. In answer, I’d push her dress up her back so I could see the curve of her waist, the flare of her hips. I’d rip off her panties, exposing the pale swell of her vulnerable ass as she stood there shaking. Without any warning, I’d bring my large, rough hand down on her cheek to give her a sharp spank. Her cry of surprise and shock would only drive me on further, fuel the boiling in my blood. I’d spank her again, hard, leaving a mark on her sensitive skin, then drive down on her again and again, my hand merciless, my punishment severe. Until that moment, that golden tipping point, when all the tension in her body, all

the anxiety, confusion and pain suddenly melted into a moan of needy pleasure. I could picture it, the slight curve in her lower spine as she offered herself up, showing me she wanted more. Needed more. Then I’d have her and could take her however I wanted. She’d surrender to me completely, and that emotional connection was what I most craved with her, the intense intimacy that formed through the meeting of our true natures. Stripping away how we had to behave, what we thought was right, conventions and requirements and roles. Just us, Sophie my sub and I her dom, teaching her how much pleasure she could possibly experience. It was picturing her puss* that finished me. I imagined bringing my hand down, first hard, then soft as she started moaning. Coaxing her feet farther apart. Kneeling down to inspect my girl after her spanking, what would I find? Her puss*, glistening with need, wet with arousal, begging me for so much more. I came hot and hard, my seed spilling out against the tile wall, my groans swallowed by the hot pulse of the shower. Immediately afterward, regret flooded over me. What was I doing, jacking off to thoughts of Sophie? Especially when I could be out having actual sex with real women who wanted nothing more than a night of pleasure. What was wrong with me that I still chose Sophie, even just a fantasy of her, above all else? That wasn’t going to happen again. I lathered up with a cake of soap, washing off the wall, cleaning every inch of my body in the hot water. That had been a moment of weakness, but now it had passed. I’d been taken by surprise seeing Sophie today, so a moment was to be expected. But now I’d had it, and it was over. From that moment on I’d keep better control of myself. After all, that’s what I was good at, wielding control. I knew how to keep myself on lockdown, how to shut off, resist, and not think about what I most wanted. I’d done it for seven years now. I could do it for the rest of my life, no problem.



“D idja do it?” Regina looked at me expectantly from behind the counter. “Are

you my new neighbor?” “I’m still in the closing phase. But, yes, I think I’m going to be your new neighbor!” Even as I said the words, I only half believed it myself. The sellers had come down in price in exchange for a ten-day close. I knew that seemed suspiciously rushed, but as impatient as I felt even ten days seemed like too long. “Shut up!” She clapped her hands in delight and ran around the side to come give me a big hug. “Welcome to the hood!” “Thank you.” I hugged her back, glad at least one other person was happy about it. Well, Eloise was happy, too. That made three of us. Everyone else thought I was insane. My mother had simply refused to believe it was happening. “You want to buy what?” co*cktail in one hand, the other on her hip, she’d stared me down like a pro. But she forgot I’d learned from her, and I could stare right back. “I’m going to buy the building at 11 Cherry Street. I’m going to live on the second floor and operate a dance studio on the first.” “You’re going to open up a shop.” She paused for dramatic effect, the word “shop” dropping like a nasty swear. “And live above it?” Her words dripped with such disdain it was almost funny. But if she’d hoped to dissuade me, her objections only made me even more certain I had to do it. “That’s absurd.” She’d left the room. Later she’d tried telling me she wouldn’t give me a penny, which of course I didn’t need anyway because not only had I been earning my own money for years, I also had a trust fund fully in my own name. Later she’d tried guilt, “but I’ll never see you,” and shame, “what will people think?” But it didn’t matter. I was set on it. It was a lot more fun to talk about it with Regina. “OK, come here for a second. I need to give you some cookies.” Regina put a

couple of cookies into a bag and handed them to me. “You’re going to need these.” “Thank you,” I laughed, insisting on putting five dollars into the tip jar. She was right. I was going to need those cookies. I had an uphill battle on my hands. My next stop of the day was the Naugatuck Historical Society where I was making a daily effort to work toward a compromise. I’d brought them homemade cookies, jars of locally made cranberry jam and honey, and yesterday an expensive bottle of champagne. Today I figured I’d bring them a couple of coffees from Cuppa Joe to go. Shameless attempts at bribery, I knew, but those people were tough old birds. They also talked slowly, processed slowly, and needed to state their case in nine different ways, so I was giving them all of my patience. I’d needed a project and boy I had one now. I hadn’t thought about buying the whole building, just leasing the bottom floor, but once the realtor gave me a tour of the place she explained that the owner wanted to sell, not lease. It was a package deal, the whole building. I saw why no one had bought it, why it had lain vacant for years. But to me, it was the perfect solution. I needed to move out of my mother’s house, with all of her anger and judgment. The words not spoken fairly screamed from the walls and it made me feel crazy. I’d been living on my own for seven years now, or at least not with my parents. I’d had a constantly changing stream of roommates, other dancers and then George, for about a year. But this time I needed to be on my own, living by myself, getting my head screwed on right. And hopefully, never running into Liam Connolly again. After buying a couple of coffees and offering my profuse thanks, I walked the couple of blocks over to the historical society, munching a cookie along the way. The streets were flooded with tourists, swelling the island’s population to several thousand, so there was really no reason to keep looking over my shoulder for Liam. But I kept wondering if I’d see him anyway. The nerve of that man. He’d treated me so coldly, like I was an enemy. He still looked infuriatingly hot as hell, so tall and chiseled with muscle, even bigger than when I’d known him last. And those eyes? I’d had to catch my breath when he’d looked at me full on. At first I’d seen such depth in them, such emotion. But when he’d returned for the inspection after his phone call, he’d been closed, rude and dismissive. When had he gotten a huge chip on his shoulder? My wealthy background had never been an issue in the past. We’d laughed about it when our differences arose, and I’d always appreciated that he didn’t make me feel weird or spoiled. That had clearly changed. Now he seemed to assume I was an entitled brat trying to dismiss the rules like they just didn’t apply to me.

Thankfully, before he’d showed up, I actually had had the foresight to call the historic society. The building dated back to the 1700s. I’d been on Naugatuck long enough to know how stuffy and protective people got about old buildings. I even understood the attachment to the town’s past, to a point. The downtown was charming. I loved how sleepy they’d kept everything with the ban on chain stores and the lack of traffic lights. Naugatuck had a character all its own, and I’d never been anyplace that compared. But they went a little far with it. Like with my building. The first answer I got when I called the historic society was a clipped response that all of the information I needed could be found on their website. There, in fine print, I found all sorts of restrictions and prohibitions. Honestly, before Liam showed up I’d been on the fence. But once he told me I couldn’t do it, I found myself vehemently asserting that I could. Who did he think he was, telling me there was no way it could happen? Like it was impossible. People bought stores on the island. They figured out how to do it. I entered into the historical society office, smile on my face. The building was ancient, of course, with awkwardly small doorways and low ceilings. People had been smaller 250 years ago and hadn’t exactly favored an open floor plan. But baby steps, I reminded myself, taking a deep breath. I needed both determination and patience if I was going to get what I wanted. A tiny woman who had to be in her 80s sat behind the desk today. The entire place was staffed with volunteers, but their pockets were deep and their influence over the town fierce. She wore a cardigan sweater over a long-sleeved dress even though the temperature was in the high 70s. “Oh, no thank you.” She turned down my offer of coffee or a cookie. I sat down and explained my situation, how I was in the process of purchasing a historic building, how much respect I had for the architectural intent, etc. “Is this the dance studio?” she asked. And if I was not mistaken, there was a twinkle in her eye. “Yes it is, ma’am. I’ve been dancing professional ballet in New York for the last seven years and now I’d like to teach.” “I’m a dancer myself.” Now I definitely saw a twinkle in her eye. A flicker of hope lit in my heart. “Would you like to come see the space?” I asked eagerly. “Oh, I’ve seen it,” she dismissed me. “Yes, but I’d love to show you what I’m envisioning. What it could become if we can figure out a way to preserve and protect the space while also ensuring the safety of the children learning dance. What was your name again?” See how good I

was getting? Honestly, I thought it would be fun to offer dance classes to all ages, but “think of the children” always seemed to resonate well with people. “I’m Julia. And you say you have some ideas?” she asked, that spark of interest back in her crinkly blue eyes. “I do. And I’d love to share them with you.” After that, all it took was a call to her driver who happened to be waiting around back. Ah, the wealthy of Naugatuck. We rode over the two blocks, and Julia brushed aside my offer to take her arm as we walked to the doorway. Thankfully, I remembered the code for the realtor’s lock box and we were able to enter. The place had a real feel to it, depth and character. We both stood there for a moment, appreciating the high ceilings, the wide-windowed view of the ocean. “Over here on this wall, we could have mirrors.” I gestured along the far side. “A barre could go there, and a piano could go here.” I walked over to the corner. “And there’s a back room that’s perfect for a changing area and even a little bathroom that would need some updating, but the plumbing is there.” From the 1940s, I didn’t add. No need emphasizing the shortcomings when I finally had an attentive ear. Julia looked around, a smile playing at her lips. Then, with a happy sigh, she said, “This could be a lovely dance studio.” “Couldn’t it!” I twirled around, unable to stop my feet from moving. I’d brought Eloise by yesterday and she’d danced her way across the wooden floor as well. It seemed to inspire movement. “Well,” she nodded, deep in thought. “Let’s see what we can do.” “Really?” A smile burst across my face. She’d just said let us, as if she and I were on the same team. “I think Harold may be the right person to talk to.” She made her way over to the window, a dreamy look on her features. “He’ll know how to handle this.” “Fantastic. Do you want to give me his number? Or should I stop by—?” “Oh, hush now.” Julia waved at me like I was an overeager puppy. Which I was kind of acting like at the moment. “I’ll speak with Harold,” she assured me. “These things can’t be rushed.” “Well, I am in the process of closing right now. It would be great if we could get some of these questions answered, figure out a course of action.” “Yes, yes.” Julia swatted at me again to calm down and started making her way again to the doorway. “You’ve got plenty to keep you busy. You talk to all the people who can do things to this beautiful space and see what they have to say. I’ll see about getting you permission to make some changes.” “Oh, thank you so much.” I wanted to give her a hug, but she looked so tiny I

was worried I’d crack a rib. At the door, she turned and gave me a smile. “This is going to be fun.” “It is, isn’t it?” Feeling lighter than I had in months, maybe years, I made sure she got back into her car safe and sound and then returned to my sunlit studio. I’d already come by with a dustpan and broom plus a couple of rags and some Windex. The place looked like it was almost ready to open. How hard could it be to fix a little wiring? I just needed the right people who knew how to work on historic buildings. And now, with Julia on my side, maybe I’d get some more green lights to move ahead. “This still a good time?” A guy in jeans and a T-shirt poked his head into the studio. “Is it noon already?” I’d called an electrician the day before to come take a look at the project. I’d found him on Yelp and been thrilled when he’d said he had time to come stop by. So far, in the middle of the busy summer season, most of my calls had gone straight to voice mail, and those who did respond, frequently told me they wouldn’t have any time in the coming weeks. “Yup.” He walked in and started looking around. Once he got into the back room, he started making the disgusted kinds of grunts and groans of a gourmet forced to sit through a meal of fast food. “You see this?” He pointed to some exposed wiring, up at a corner in the ceiling. I’d wondered about that. “I couldn’t even get at that because they won’t let me touch an inch of this plaster. Which, by the way, all needs to come down.” He poked a finger at a patch that looked suspiciously crumbly and, sure enough, it disintegrated like powdered sugar. “And do you want to try to keep that a bathroom?” He pointed and made a face like keeping it would be the craziest idea he’d ever heard. “We’re going to need a bathroom for the students.” “Pffst.” He blew air out of his nostrils like an angry bull. “Naw, I’m not touchin’ this project.” He started walking out of the studio. “Wait, I was hoping to get an estimate from you. So I can start understanding the scope and cost?” “Lady, here’s my estimate.” He paused at the door. “I estimate this place isn’t worth the headache. If you can still back out of the deal, do it.” With that, he left. I wouldn’t say my happy balloon popped, but I did feel like it had escaped my grasp, drifting up into the sky while I watched it helplessly from the ground. And then things got worse. “What, are you hiring Salducci?” Liam walked into the studio, full of incredulous animosity.

“What are you doing here?” I crossed my arms against my chest and tried to prepare myself for another attack. I hadn’t fully recovered from the last one. To think, before I’d seen him I’d been getting all misty-eyed over memories. Clearly he hadn’t been experiencing the same nostalgia. “I was driving by and I saw that jerk’s van parked outside. He’ll rob you blind.” “Yeah, well, I don’t think he’ll be working here anyway.” “Oh, let me guess.” Liam crossed his arms across his chest, too. But he had a broad, muscular chest and when he did it his biceps bulged. Not that I was noticing that sort of thing. “He didn’t even want to bid on the work.” “I’m not talking about this with you.” I started heading for the back room, for no other reason than wanting to get away from him. “You didn’t need to come back. You made your point the other day.” “Not clearly enough, I see.” The infuriatingly stubborn man followed me. Now we were standing in a much smaller space. Merely feet away from the man I’d ached for for so many years. Who now looked at me like I was a complete idiot. “Look, I’m making my own decisions about this place,” I insisted. “It’s a money pit.” His eyes flashed, such a gorgeous shade of dark blue, like the ocean during sunset. But f*ck sunsets and dark blue eyes. He was driving me crazy. “Why do you care if I throw my money down a pit?” I looked away from him, unfortunately managing to glance at the exposed wires and missing patch of plaster. “Must be nice being so rich you can just throw money away.” “I don’t need this!” I tossed my hands up, shaking with anger. “I’ve got enough people telling me I’m an idiot. I don’t need you doing it, too.” I headed once again into the larger studio. But to do it I had to brush past him. I drew in a deep breath. He was so much larger than I was, and as I passed I could feel the heat from his body. He exhaled, long and deep. As we touched, slightly, his hands balled into fists. “So, what, are you back now? You’re moving back to Naugatuck?” He strode after me. “Why, is this island not big enough for the both of us?” I taunted him, like he was some tough guy in a movie. He didn’t own the island. My family had had a home there for decades. I had every right to spend time there if I chose. He shook his head. “You’re making a big mistake.” “So what!” I nearly yelled. If I were a cartoon character, steam would be pouring out of my ears. “Don’t treat me like a child. I’m not 18 anymore. I can do what I want.” “You’ve always done what you wanted.” Now his words were laced with meaning

and I couldn’t help but look up into his eyes. “I never could talk you out of anything, could I?” I had to turn away. His gaze was too intense. I walked over to the window, wrapping my arms around my chest. Suddenly I felt cold in the middle of the warm, sunny June afternoon. “This is crazy.” He stalked over to the door, then yanked it open with such force the doorknob came off right in his hands. “f*ck.” He stopped, observing the knob in his palm. “What did you do?” I rushed over. “This place is held together with rubber bands, Sophie.” A shiver went down my spine, hearing him speak my name again. Something in the way he said it, in his deep, rumbling voice, made me remember laying my head on his chest and feeling him say my name as he stroked my hair. “Well, thanks for pulling it apart.” I reached to grab it out of his hands, but he pulled it away. “I can fix it.” “Please, don’t,” I insisted, exasperated. “I’ll fix it.” He kneeled down and, of course, he happened to have a screwdriver in his back pocket. Because who didn’t carry a set of tools with them at all times? It made me think of my ex-boyfriend, George, who hired out every last bit of manual labor in his life. He probably wouldn’t recognize a screwdriver if it stood up and bit him in the ass. But George had also never made me want to rip his hair out at the roots in seething frustration. “Fine. I have to go.” If he wasn’t leaving, then I was. “Just close the lock after you. And try not to destroy anything else while you’re here.” “That won’t be easy,” he called after me. “The whole place is falling apart.” I’d driven over that morning and I hustled to the car. Nearly ripping the door off its hinges as I swung it open, I climbed in, then slammed it shut. Just so I wouldn’t have to pass the storefront again, I drove off the other way down the street. Why the hell was Liam meddling in my business? Telling me I was making a huge mistake. Maybe I was. But I was done doing what other people wanted me to do. I didn’t even know if I would have pursued professional dance if I hadn’t had so many teachers and agents and of course my mother presenting it as the only option. With my bone structure and my talent, what an opportunity! I’d be crazy to pass it up! Didn’t I know how lucky I was? How many people would kill to be in my place? Fine, so maybe this was my over-reaction. My time to do something no one else in their right mind would do. But at least it would be my choice. And if I failed, if in

a year I wasn’t able to figure out how to get the place renovated and opened up, well then at least I’d have tried to do something interesting. My phone rang and I clicked it on with Bluetooth. “Sophie, you haven’t responded to my texts.” It was Theo. “Hi Theo. Sorry, I’ve been really busy.” “Are you coming to my party tonight? I’d love to see you.” “Sure,” I responded quickly. I hadn’t even thought about it, but I needed to get out and do something. I was going to go stir-crazy kicking around my mother’s house all night, possibly getting yet another lecture from her about what a big mistake I was making. I had a date with Eloise tomorrow to go mini golfing, but tonight it looked like I’d be jet setting with the young and fabulous of Naugatuck. Whitney called me right after I got off the phone, confirming that she’d stop by and get me so we could head over to the party together. I dressed in silk and heels, simple yet I knew it accentuated my slender build. I put on perfume and blow-dried my hair within an inch of its life, then applied makeup like the pro I’d learned to become. It all felt like preparing to give a performance, something I very much wished I was done with. I’d rather kick it with some good friends who didn’t need me to put on a show. But I hadn’t made those friends yet. So tonight, I’d choose going out over staying in with too much on my mind. Whitney arrived on time and we took a car over together, her constant chatter and laughter rushing past me like a brisk wind. As soon as we arrived at the yacht club, a staff member escorted us out and down a long pier to where the largest yachts were docked. Whitney had not been exaggerating; the thing was huge. A young man who introduced himself as an assistant to Mr. Bartright, a.k.a. Theo, welcomed us onto the yacht and ushered us directly over to the man himself. “Don’t you look lovely tonight.” Theo gave me a double-cheek kiss and an admiring look. “Thank you for having us. Your boat is amazing.” “I was hoping you’d like it.” He smiled at me, the consummate wealthy 30year-old bachelor in crisp khakis and a tailored button-down shirt. I could see why my mother was practically salivating over him as a match for me. Whitney was salivating as well as she went in close for her double kiss. I’d been right about the chemistry I thought I’d picked up on earlier. At least from her. Her eyes shone as she looked up at him. Unfortunately for her, Theo was looking back at me. I watched Whitney’s face sour as she also picked up on the dynamic. “Sophie and I are going to get some champagne!” She pulled me off with her like we were in middle school and needed to share some gossip. “Let me introduce you

to some of the real players here. Not that stick in the mud, Theo.” Jealousy could be so naked sometimes. I met fancy people, all decked out, sparkling with jewels and wit. The women were all thin and fashionable. The men, too. At last I found a moment to wander off by myself, standing and looking out over the water. The night had been clear when we’d arrived, but it had taken a sudden turn. A fierce, chilly wind had started chopping up the waves, not enough to rock Theo’s behemoth but enough to toss smaller crafts like toys in a tub. I noticed some staff from the yacht club walking along the pier. It looked as if they were helping guests step off other boats, heading off the water and into the building. “There you are.” Theo came and stood next to me, wrapping a hand around my waist. “Hey, do you see what’s going on down there?” I pointed to the pier. “Are they asking people to head inside?” “Oh, that’s their job to over-react. We’re absolutely safe out here. Don’t you worry about a thing.” He caressed my side. “Can I get you something? You don’t have a drink! Let me pour you some wine I’ve been saving for a special occasion.” “Theo, are you sure?” I looked down nervously at the pier. It really was starting to look like an evacuation to me. And at that, a cold, wet drop of water hit me on the cheek announcing the start of a storm. “Damn it.” Theo whisked me away from the edge of the boat and down off the deck. “The forecast was clear for tonight.” “You never know when something might start up out of nowhere.” My brother had learned that lesson the hard way. Downstairs, yacht club staff and what looked like security were starting to escort people off the yacht. “Everything’s fine here,” Theo asserted loudly. The head of the security detail pulled him aside and had a stern talk. Theo relented, but didn’t look happy about it. He clearly was a man used to getting his way. “Why don’t you stay?” he asked me as I passed by him with Whitney. “We can get a drink in the club.” “Great idea!” Whitney answered exactly as I said, “I think I’m going to head home.” Looking at Whitney, I added, “I’ll call a car. You can stay here.” “You sure?” she asked, not waiting for my answer before assuring Theo, “I’ll be waiting for you in the club!” “I’ll call you,” Theo called after me. Security walked us down the pier and, I had to admit, I was glad for the escort. The wind whipped angrily around us and a few unsecured items on boats flapped and snapped in the gale. I’ve always loved the look of the ocean in all of its states,

but storms frightened me. They reminded me of Ian. And of Liam. It was Liam I thought of as I went home alone. Liam’s voice I heard as I washed my face and changed into a T-shirt and boxer shorts. His blue eyes I pictured as I rested my head on my pillow. What had he done that night? Was he working? Rescuing people in this suddenly stormy weather? I felt so crazy around him, so hyper aware of his nearness, his every gesture and movement. He seemed so much larger than I remembered. He probably was larger; he’d only been 20 when we’d last known each other. Just a kid, really. Now he was undeniably a man. There in the dark, I had the urge to slip my fingers down and indulge. I knew I was wet, now that I’d been thinking about Liam. Frustrated as I was that he still had that effect on me, I couldn’t change it. Even though he clearly didn’t think much of me anymore. I was an annoyance, some rich lady with no sense in her head. He probably wasn’t single, anyway. I hadn’t noticed a wedding ring on him, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. A lot of guys didn’t wear their ring. Or he could be serious with someone and just not married yet. Why did the thought twist up my gut and make me wince? I groaned into my pillow, shifting position. I should have stayed out, distracting myself. Now it was just me with my restless fingers and throbbing cl*t in the darkness. But I wouldn’t let myself. I wouldn’t give in, even alone when no one else could find out. I’d know, and I refused to admit that Liam still got to me. Because that might mean I still had feelings for him, possibly that I’d never gotten over him. And if seven long years didn’t make a difference, what if no time would ever be enough to forget him?



W e had a messy time of it last night with the sudden storm. The power went out on a couple of grids. Several cars skidded and crashed. It was not a night to be out and about. The problem was, people didn’t take safety seriously. They felt invincible. I’d felt that at one time, too. Then I’d learned that nature was much more powerful than man. There was nothing any one of us could do against her wrath once it was unleashed. All we could do was take precautions to try to avoid disaster before it happened. I finished my shift at 8 a.m. and decided to grab a coffee before I headed home. I knew it didn’t make any sense. When I got home I’d want to try to sleep. But I wanted coffee. That’s how that thought process went. My favorite coffee shop was Cuppa Joe, the local independent downtown. And, yes, it did happen to be a mere stone’s throw away from a certain annoyingly stubborn woman’s money pit. I shook my head just thinking about it. Sophie would be better off trying to bang her head against a brick wall rather than trying to renovate and open a business in that space. Of course, if she tried banging her head on that building of hers it would probably all come tumbling down in a pile of bricks and mortar. I pulled my truck into a parking spot only locals knew about a block from the coffee shop. They were hidden all over the island, like Easter eggs in a video game that only insiders knew about. The second anyone reported on one of the parking spots online, the spot got changed up. It was one of the few rebellious things us locals could do to try to mitigate the infestation of tourists. Of course we all relied on tourists to make a living. And our version of tourists were so dripping with money it was obscene. Half of them were billionaires, the other half just shy at like 900K. Most of the time our social scenes didn’t mix, with a few exceptions. Every year I threw a Fourth of July bash that had become

legendary for random and occasionally star-studded cameos. Last year not one but two Grammy-winning recording artists plus an Oscar nominee had stopped by. I never kiss and tell, but I will say Taylor Swift is just as pretty in person as she looks in pictures. It was just two weeks away and everyone assumed I’d be throwing the party again this year. I never did much for it, just stocked up with as much liquor as I possibly could plus warned my mom that cars would be parked all over the property. She knew I was a good boy and this just happened to be the one, raging bash I threw every year. But this year? I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe when it got closer to the fourth I’d start feeling the excitement, slip easily into my role as master entertainer. Just now, though, I wasn’t feeling myself. Upset and agitated, I had so much energy no run could burn it off. I felt restless and disengaged no matter who I was around, my closest buddies or a hot, ready and willing girl. If I did a little self-analysis, I could probably come up with the reason why. I knew who was on my mind. But what good would it do to acknowledge it? I couldn’t really do anything about Sophie being back on the island. All I could do was try to distract myself and stay away from her as much as possible. Inside Cuppa Joe, music blended with conversation and a few familiar faces waved hello. I liked the feeling of being a local in a small town. Most of the time. The last week, though, I’d felt all too aware of being on the lookout for one particular face. My old friend Jax had an invitation extended to me at all times to go visit him in California. He’d been one of the ones out on that boat with me back when we were 14. That made him a blood brother. I knew I wouldn’t even have to call in advance, I could just show up on his doorstep with a duffel bag and stay as long as I liked, no questions asked. I’d do the same for him. Maybe that was what I needed, a weekend away. Far away. “Morning, Liam.” Regina gave me a big smile and even the quiet girl working with her gave me a nod. Ladies liked me. “And how are you this fine morning?” I returned the favor, beaming at her. Regina and I went way back. She’d been a few years ahead of me, but on an island this small everyone who’d grown up there knew a hell of a lot about each other. We’d never dated, not even hooked up which was saying something, but that made it easier to be friends with her now, didn’t it? “All you’re missing is an Irish brogue, Liam Connolly.” She shook her head, already pouring me my medium regular coffee with room for milk. “I can work on one if you’d like, Regina.” I gave her a wink. “I could start saying Top ’o the mornin’ to ya.”

She burst out laughing and gave me a dismissive wave like I was too much. But she liked it, I could tell. “Busy night last night?” she asked, handing me my coffee. She knew what was what. Last I heard she was dating an electrician, who I bet had his hands full with the storm. “Up all night,” I confirmed, handing her a couple of dollars. “Nothing serious, though.” “Your girl got caught in it out on a boat last night.” “What?” My blood froze in my veins. She couldn’t mean Sophie. Sophie hadn’t been my girl for seven years. Regina must mean someone else. But who the hell did she mean had gotten caught out on a boat in that sudden storm last night? I hadn’t heard about any serious accidents, but a storm like that could kill. “Sophie,” Regina confirmed, making change from her old-fashioned register. “Sophie was out on a boat in the storm last night?” I squeezed the paper cup in my hand too hard and some hot coffee spilled out onto my hand. “Yeah, but she’s OK. She—” I didn’t wait to hear more. I turned, threw my coffee into the nearest bin and stormed out of the shop. “Wait, your change!” Regina called after me but the door clanking shut behind me was her answer. Of all the stupid things I’d ever heard. After what had happened to her brother, you’d think Sophie would be smarter. It was one thing to insist on buying a crumbling pile of historic bricks. It was a whole other level of stubborn and stupid to head out into the ocean in the middle of the kind of storm we had last night. All too like the kind of storm Ian and I had been caught in. A few doors down, I tried the doorknob on her storefront. Regina had said she was OK. Maybe she’d be there already. The door was locked. I cupped my hands and peered into the glass. Sure enough, Sophie in a white T-shirt and a pair of shorts emerged from the back. She stopped in her tracks as she saw who it was at the door. “Let me in.” I knocked again, not bothering to hide my anger. She needed to know a stunt like she’d pulled was not OK. Slowly, tentatively, she continued her approach and unlocked the door. “What the hell were you doing out on the water last night?” I exploded as I strode into the empty room. “What are you—?” “Regina told me.” I jerked my thumb in the general direction of the coffee shop. “Are you out of your mind? Did you learn nothing from what happened to your brother?”

“I learned a hell of a lot from what happened to my brother.” Defiance sparked in her gorgeous blue eyes. Her hands flew to her hips, sitting high on her feminine curves. “Apparently not.” I advanced on her, closing the gap between us, fury propelling me forward. “That storm last night? That was no goddamned joke. No one had any business heading out in it.” “I didn’t head out in it!” She threw her hands up, but also took a step in retreat, her eyes flicking nervously to the side. “You make it sound like I rowed out by myself in a dinghy. I was on a yacht.” “You know what a wall of water coming at 70 miles an hour can do to a yacht?” I advanced again. How could she have done that? How could she not have known the danger? I remembered the large and sturdy boat we’d taken for a joyride, our stupid 14-year-old minds after nothing but a good time. The wind and waves had snapped it in two like a toy boat in the hands of an angry giant. “We didn’t even leave the harbor.” “If you were on the water, you were in danger.” The next step she took away from me bumped her up against the wall. She reached her palms out along it as if clutching it for support. “They evacuated us,” she protested, sounding slightly more contrite. “Evacuated,” I repeated, now right up next to her, breathing hard. That close I could smell her, the unique and intoxicating blend of lavender and Sophie making my senses reel. “You had to be evacuated and you’re still telling me you didn’t do anything stupid?” “Theo said we had nothing to worry about.” Now her voice sounded much more meek. “Theo? Who the hell is Theo?” And why did I want to crush his tiny neck in my vice-like grip? “Theo Bartright. His family has a house here.” Bartright, the name rang a bell. His family had been coming to the island for years. He was an old money tool. I was sure Sophie’s mother was thrilled. “Liam.” She looked up at me, her voice softer, her eyes almost pleading. “I didn’t think—” “Damn straight you didn’t think.” My palm pounded against the wall over her head. Foolish woman, risking her life like that. “Liam, you’re scaring me.” I looked down and saw she was shaking, so much smaller than me and I had her trapped under my frame, my chest leaning in, palms over her head. “Damn it, Sophie.” I sucked in a deep breath, exhaling out over her head. I wanted to touch

her, reassure her, let her know I wasn’t going to hurt her. Slowly removing my hand from the wall, I inched my palm to her face, but stopped when I noticed her breathing kick up. I was affecting her in more ways than one. “What if something had happened to you?” I asked her in a fierce whisper. “What if you’d gotten hurt? What if, in the storm—” “I’m all right, Liam.” She spoke quietly but surely, looking up into my eyes. Her palm landed in the middle of my chest, radiating heat toward my heart. “I’m all right.” I leaned down and took her lips with mine, fierce and sudden. I needed to pull her close, no distance between us. I couldn’t stop at hearing her tell me she was all right. I needed to feel it, hold her in my arms. She gasped as I kissed her, but only for a moment. Then she melted into me, her hands up digging deep into my shoulders as if to hold on, her lips searching mine as I promised her with my kiss, I will keep you safe. I will protect you. Nothing bad will happen to you, I won’t let it. “Hey! Oh, OK…” A guy’s voice broke into our world from behind me. “I can come back later.” “Wait!” Sophie pushed at me. Her hand felt so good, right at the center of my chest, it took me a second to realize she was doing it so she could break free. Like a drugged man trying to snap out it, I pulled myself back slow and logy. “I’m sorry!” Sophie called out, sounding much more together as she slipped out and away. “Wait, thanks for coming.” She rushed over toward the door. I stood like a dumb bear, taking a few seconds to try to screw my head on straight. Then I turned around to see some idiot flooring guy I knew would overcharge and under-deliver. “What the hell?” I ran a hand through my hair, meaning the question in more ways than one. I had to be losing my mind, kissing Sophie like that. And then I’d lost it in a whole other way from the kiss, itself. “I’m here to take a look at your flooring.” He shook Sophie’s hand, looking at her like a wolf. She may as well have on a red riding hood. “Great.” She shook his hand back, and though her voice sounded composed I could see she was still shaking slightly. “The water damage is back here.” She started leading him toward the back. “You’ve got water damage, too?” “It’s none of your business.” She scowled at me. The flooring guy gave me an amused look. He could take his amused ass right out the door as far as I was concerned. “Oh yeah, you’ve got a hell of a project on your hands.” I could hear the guy’s declaration, delivered in the practiced tone that let her know “hand over your

checkbook.” He probably took one look at Sophie and could tell the girl was money. It didn’t matter that she wore a T-shirt and shorts, she still screamed it from the top of the long, soft fall of her honey-colored hair all the way down to her Italian leather pale pink flats. “This here?” I heard the floor planks creak as he kneeled down. I could practically see the crack of his ass showing as he bent over and peered at the mess. “This is gonna be a problem.” “Not your problem,” I growled as I leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed against my chest. I just couldn’t stand by and listen to it happen. I knew Sophie wasn’t my responsibility. She wasn’t my woman anymore, not by a long shot, but for the love of God this man needed to pack it up. “Excuse me?” He stood up, trying to look territorial as he shot me a glare. “You heard me,” I continued, steady and sure. “She’s not going to work with you. You can head out.” “Who the hell is he?” He looked at Sophie, nodding his head at me like I was a space alien dropped down into the scene. “I’m someone who’s looking out for her. And she’s not going to be hiring you.” Sophie looked up, her fingers scrunched in her hair. “Am I going crazy?” she asked the ceiling. “I don’t need this,” the flooring guy declared, picking up his pad of paper in a huff. “Wait, can you just give me an estimate?” Sophie called after him. I stepped to the side to let him pass. The man needed a wide berth. “Not with this guy here being a pain in my ass.” He pointed at me with his clipboard. “Got that right.” “It’s summertime, lady.” He shook his head and continued his path out the door. “I got enough work as it is. I don’t need no headaches.” “Good call.” I encouraged his exodus. “Why the hell are you trying to ruin everything?” Sophie came at me now with just as much anger flashing in her eyes as I’d had earlier. Jaw set, she glared and nearly spat out her words. “I’m 25 and I’m living life how I want. I’m making my own choices. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t like them.” Now I took a couple of steps back. She was small but she was mighty. “You need to get out of my store. And stop trying to boss me around.” “Has it occurred to you maybe I’m trying to help you out? Stop you from getting way in over your head? Hemorrhaging money on some of these idiots pretending they can fix up your store?”

“Who made you such an expert on all of this?” As she threw her hands up in exasperation, the hem of her T-shirt lifted, giving me a sweet, brief flash of her stomach. I could lick that. “I mean, I know you’re a firefighter,” she continued ranting, oblivious of my tangent of lust. “And I know you were caught out in that storm so you’re cautious.” “But I’m sure Theo is much more of an expert when it comes to safety.” Sarcasm dripped off my words. “He’s not an idiot!” “But I am?” “I’m not saying that.” She brought her hand to her forehead, rubbing it as if she were developing a migraine. I felt the same way. Only I wanted to rub her forehead, then run my hands through her hair, cup her cheek, tilt her chin up and kiss her all over again. That would feel good. She fit so right in my arms. “You need to go,” she repeated, pointing to the door for emphasis. “All right,” I agreed. For now. “Just promise me you’re not going to hire some numb nuts who has no idea what he’s doing. This project of yours—” “Is a nightmare. I know, that’s what the guy you chased out of here was starting to explain to me.” “You need good people. Honest people who know what they’re doing.” “That’s why I’m getting a whole bunch of estimates. Or trying to.” “From the wrong people.” “You’re driving me crazy.” She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers. “I’m leaving.” I put my hand on the doorknob to show I meant it. She peeked at me, wondering what would come next. “But I’m going to give you some names of guys I know. Guys who won’t rob you blind or leave you worse off than you were before. And they’ll know how to work on a historic building.” “Well…” She stared at the floor, then at the ceiling, then let out a long breath she’d been holding. “That would be helpful, Liam, but you don’t have to.” “I know I don’t have to.” I took a deep breath, too. This woman was so damn stubborn. “And I can do the flooring myself.” The minute the offer was out of my mouth I wondered why in the hell I’d said it. I hadn’t thought about saying it. It had just popped out. But it was true. I’d done enough work on houses, enough carpentry that I knew I could fix her flooring. And I wouldn’t charge her for it, either. “That’s not…” Hands back up on her hips, she looked at the floor and bit her lip. “I’m not sure—” “I’ll put together a list of guys who can help you out.” And with that, I left the building.

So much for sleeping. Even after the night I’d had, I felt as wired as superman in a fight. I headed home and holed up on my couch, laptop fired up and ready, phone at my side. I put together a list I was sure many would pay good money for—the best guys on the island who’d do the highest quality work for the most decent prices. She needed these guys, because our island, especially during the summer, was overrun with snakes. Anytime you had fat birds laying around like we did, you got predators slithering around, looking for an easy way to make a quick buck. Sophie didn’t need that. She had a complicated enough job on her hands and she needed people she could trust. People who’d treat her right. People like me. Finally around three p.m., I switched off and headed into bed for a much-needed nap. Shades drawn, I still had the window open so I could listen to the sound of the waves. How many people could actually hear the ocean from their bedroom? I had it good in so many ways. I had it made. Except now I ached, like I was missing exactly what I needed. Like I couldn’t rest again until I had Sophie back in my arms. Kissing her had been a mistake of epic proportions. The smell of her, like spring after a fresh rain, alive and ripe and fresh. She’d trembled in my arms and clung to me like I was saving her, rescuing her and she never wanted me to let her go. Until she’d pushed me away. f*ck, this was complicated. I shifted in the sheets, lying on my back. Exhaustion pulled at my limbs. I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. My body and mind needed to rest. But Sophie kept prodding me, pushing me, making me remember. The way she’d looked after she’d had an org*sm, all those years ago. Stunned and pink and glowing. The sounds she’d made, I could still hear them, her desire for me building, climaxing, building again. I could never get enough of her, not then, not now. It felt like sipping a drug, stepping that near to her again. Feeling the soft plush of her lips, the sweet yield of her body, the dip of her lower back. I reached down and stroked as I fantasized, wanting more. Wanting that kiss to keep going, uninterrupted, just the two of us. I’d travel down to that patch of stomach I caught a glimpse of and kiss her there. I’d unbutton, undress her, spread her naked before me so I could look and stroke and kiss. I wanted her tied down, with her wrists bound up over her head. Only then could I truly take my time. When she touched me it made my blood boil. I struggled to keep the kind of control I wanted, and with Sophie I needed control. I needed to see how far I could push her, the woman who’d made me feel more than any other. I wanted to make her crazy, test her limits then push past them. Make her cry and beg with desire, then reward her more than she’d ever dreamed. Her breasts, the pink of her nipples so ripe, I could picture her as I stroked my hard, thick shaft faster now. She’d twist against her restraints, wide-eyed,

frightened at first as she gave me complete control. I’d play with that, make her feel her vulnerability, make sure she understood how deeply I owned her body, mind and soul. My balls tightened and I could feel the need for release, the urgent pulse and throb. But I held back, slowing my pace, making it last. Like I’d make her wait for it. Tied up, I’d lick her everywhere but where she needed it most. I’d circle her breasts, cupping, blowing on her tender tips. She’d pant and whine. I could see her arch her back, her ribs showing as she begged me to suck on her, bite her, give her more than a teasing caress. I’d break her down until she was glistening with sweat, panting, puss* gleaming wet, legs open in invitation. I’d suffered seven years, aching, wanting, needing. Now it was her turn to ache, come undone, shuddering and helpless under my power. I’d make her lie very, very still. Only when she lay there like a good girl would I slowly, so slowly bring my finger to her puss* as I took my mouth to her aching, stiff nipple. And then I’d bite. She’d cum as I did it, screaming out in pleasure and pain, the sensation of my teeth on her sensitive flesh shooting to her core and rippling out in waves. I came at the thought, pumping myself against my stomach, my seed hot and wasted as I dreamed of what I’d do to her. Lying there panting, I knew it didn’t just have to be a fantasy anymore. Sophie had come back to my island. I could feel the need coursing through her the way it did through me. But I knew she had no idea what lay just beneath the surface between us, like embers threatening to burst into flames.



The next morning I had a list waiting for me, as promised. Tucked into an

envelope, pushed under the door of my shop, it was there for me bright and early at seven a.m. I wondered when he’d delivered it. It had to have been at night, maybe late at night. What was he doing putting together that list and dropping it off for me when he should have been out with friends? With his girlfriend, if he had one? Which he probably did. Even though he’d kissed me like there was no tomorrow, like I was the one and only woman he wanted and had ever wanted and would ever want for the rest of his days. I walked into the back of the store and sank to the floor, list in hand. I recognized his handwriting from years back. The summer we’d been together he’d written me notes and left them for me where he knew I’d discover them. Never anything long or especially poetic, Liam somehow seemed to know exactly what to say. “The way you smile.” He’d written that once, reminding me of how we’d look at each other, unable to stop kissing, smiling, laughing, kissing again. One night as we’d sat in the cab of his truck, a streetlight providing dim illumination, he’d gazed at me. He’d cupped my cheek, rubbing it with his thumb as I’d beamed up at him. “The way you smile,” he’d marveled, as if my smile was the best thing he’d ever seen on this earth. That was the way he made me feel, like there was no one like me. As if I were a wonder who struck him with constant amazement. And now he’d written me a list of guys who could help with my store, electricians and plumbers and painters. I knew I shouldn’t find it particularly meaningful. It had probably taken him all of ten minutes. Half of them had to be buddies of his from the fire station, and the other half their cousins and brothers. It wasn’t anything like the kinds of personal, love-struck notes he used to write me. He hadn’t written an introduction, no “Sorry I keep yelling at you,” or even,

“Hello, here is the list I mentioned I’d give you.” He hadn’t signed it, either. The man had never been about pleasantries. So it made no sense that sitting there holding that list, tears sprang to my eyes. But I needed that list. That list might be the difference between me tucking my tail between my legs and heading off the island in a matter of months and me living out my dream of owning and operating my own dance studio on the island I’d always loved. Maybe it was because I was 25, not 18 anymore. At 18 he was my first love and it was like rainbows and moonbeams and fireworks exploded every time I saw him. I had no context to make sense of it and nothing else mattered when I was with him, it was just Liam and me in our own private world. Now I was an adult, not old in any real sense of the world but I had my claim to weariness. I’d worked myself to the bone under strict and harsh scrutiny, literally given such effort I’d collapsed to the floor only to be told I needed to give more. I’d danced with such intensity and passion I’d broken my toe, only to read a critic’s review the next day complaining that he found my performance lackluster. I’d had fellow corps members lie to me so I’d miss an audition opportunity, even my livein-boyfriend George cheat on me with my main rival, my understudy whom I swore kept a voodoo doll in my likeness stuck full of pins in the hope one day I’d fail and give her her chance to shine. Many mornings I’d woken up and not known whom I could call in time of need. My brother was lost to his own pain and my sister trapped in a fierce cycle of addiction. My mother was caught firmly in a net of her own design, attached to the goals of wealth, privilege and status that had contributed so little to her own happiness. My father probably wouldn’t even recognize my voice if I called him, and he wouldn’t be able to offer much else besides throwing money at a problem. An act of unselfish help, offering something I actually needed? That didn’t happen often in my experience. But Liam had given me help, in the form of the right people to call. He’d also offered to take care of the flooring himself. And that meant I needed to sit on the floor myself, wiping a tear or two from my cheeks. I told myself not to make too much of it. I shouldn’t get overly attached to him and assume he still had feelings for me. I shouldn’t throw myself at him and tell him I regretted ever leaving him. So after a few minutes, I picked myself up, dusted myself off and got a cup of coffee to start my day right. “You look like you need this.” In Cuppa Joe, after a long line of tourists, Regina greeted me with a small, black coffee. And she said that after I’d splashed water on my face and given myself a little dust of foundation powder for good measure. “Yeah.” I didn’t even try to deny it.

“Did Liam go yell at you yesterday?” Regina looked sheepish. “He did.” When I’d mentioned my misadventure to Regina, I’d never imagined she’d tell Liam. “I had no idea he’d go storming out of here like that.” She shook her head. “Men!” “That’s OK.” I didn’t blame her at all, but I did wonder. “Why did you mention it to him, though? Were you just talking in general about the night, or…?” “You’re asking why I mentioned you to Liam?” She gave me a piercing look before she turned her attention to an impatient tourist. “What can I get you?” I left, blushing a little. Did she think there was something going on between us? Was there something going on between us? We hadn’t even had a regular, normal conversation since I’d gotten back onto the island. But I did have to admit, he was on my mind a lot. Last night, in particular. I hadn’t exactly fallen right to sleep. The other night I’d displayed fortitude and resistance, insisting that no matter how hot and bothered I felt I wouldn’t touch myself and think about Liam. Last night I hadn’t had as much willpower. In the dark between the sheets, I’d let myself go right where I wanted, closing my eyes and reliving every moment of our kiss. The feel of his rough hands, the power in his shoulders, the fierce intensity with which he held me, claimed me. It hadn’t taken long. I’d been so aroused all day. My fingers had worked my slick, throbbing cl*t as I’d pictured us not stopping, no interruption, just Liam and me, up against the wall, him thrusting hard and rough up inside of me. I’d cum, crying out into a pillow, my body shaking in org*sm. My phone rang, snapping me back into reality. Eloise’s nanny sounded desperate. “Please, can I bring her to you?” “Of course,” I assured her. I’d promised Eloise she could come spend a few hours with me at the store. She was desperate to be a part of the transformation. In particular, she dearly hoped to paint it bright pink. I’d cross that bridge when and if we came to it. And if I ever needed an excuse to say no to anything, I could always rely on the historical society. I was sure they had restrictions on using any paint colors other than beige, gray, or graying beige. Although my new friend and partner-in-crime Julia might be able to talk them into a dusty rose. That would look pretty. Julia wasn’t exactly working miracles, but together with my daily persistence she was helping to move the process along, inch by inch. The latest victory we’d achieved was getting a waiver on the code that restricted the removal of plaster. I couldn’t put in dry wall, instead—that would be cray cray—but I could take down what was needed to fix electrical and plumbing. I felt a little like I’d gotten

dispensation from the Pope. Twenty minutes later Eloise burst in, nanny in tow. It wasn’t the first time she reminded me of her storybook namesake, full of boisterous mischief. “I’m ready to paint!” she declared, spinning around. She had several bags with her filled with various belongings. I wondered if that was typical of a five-year-old, or a symptom of the unrest and instability in her past. I knew they’d moved around a bunch. Maybe things had gotten so bad with my sister that Eloise had had to keep her prized possessions with her at all times for fear of not seeing them again? “I brought some helpers!” She went over to the corner and started setting up shop, arranging her stuffed animals in a semi-circle. “OK ’til 12?” her nanny asked. “Why don’t I bring her home and give her lunch.” My offer was met with a wide smile of appreciation. “And I’ll take her to the beach this afternoon. Why don’t you take a little time to yourself.” “Thank you so much.” She was out the door before I could say another word. I guessed working in our household might be a little stressful. My mother wasn’t exactly lenient, generous or quick to praise. Just sharing a roof with her put me on edge. But I had plans to change that. Plumbing first, electrical second. Once I had running water and electricity, I’d move in to the second floor no matter how much the plaster was crumbling and the roof needed patching. I didn’t need the place to be perfect, I just wanted to be on my own for the first real time in my life. “OK, bunny, I’ve got a project for you!” I sang to Eloise. I’d given it some thought, knowing she’d want to feel like she was helping but I couldn’t actually ask her to roll up her sleeves and have at it. “Come and see.” I led her around back where lower laminate cabinets called for a thorough cleaning. After laying down a tarp, I set her up with a bucket of warm, soapy water and a big sponge. I helped her roll up her sleeves. I had no illusions about her somehow staying dry, but the cuffs might get in her way. “Have at it, luv.” Her grin lit me up. “Can we listen to Disney?” she asked and I indulged her, selecting her favorite iTunes station on my laptop. As Ariel belted out “A Whole New World,” I rolled up my own sleeves and began making calls, starting at the top of Liam’s list. “No problem,” the first guy said. “He told me to be on the lookout for your call.” I heard that a few more times as I made my way along. It seemed Liam had told them all to expect I’d be in touch, and maybe also asked them if they could do me a solid, say yes and help me out. Everyone who answered my call agreed that, sure, they could come out in the next day or so and take a look. I couldn’t believe it.

I guessed different gestures seemed romantic at different times in life. Back when I was 18 I’d swooned when Liam gave me roses. Now, the name and number of a good plumber had me fanning myself. A half an hour later I felt more upbeat about the renovation than I ever had. I felt momentum, like my dream might not be all in my head. I might actually now have people to help me make them come true. By the time I heard a knock on the door and saw it was Liam, I nearly flew at him with a huge smile on my face. I couldn’t help but hug him hello. “Hey.” He hugged me back, sounding surprised but pleased. “Sorry.” I took a step back, trying to practice restraint. “No, it’s all right.” “I’ve just been on the phone with some of the people you recommended,” I gushed. “They all sound really helpful and said they can come take a look at this place. Which, let me tell you, has not what I’ve been hearing.” “Yeah, it’s a bad time of year to be trying to get some good help.” “Tell me about it.” I shook my head. “But Johnny, the first plumber on your list, he’s coming out first thing tomorrow morning. And the second one you have on there is taking a look tomorrow afternoon.” “Good, glad they’re coming by. Now we just have to make sure they do right by you.” He smiled at me and my heart skipped a beat. If I was not mistaken, he’d just used the pronoun we. As in he was going to help me with this project as well. It was hard enough when he was railing at me, angry and scornful. But it might be harder if he got all nice and supportive. I might melt into a puddle right then and there. “Can I take a look at that flooring?” he asked. “I’ve got the day off, so I thought I’d come by. Sorry I didn’t call first. I realize I don’t have your number.” “Oh yeah, no, of course.” I bumbled and fumbled, closing the door, searching for my phone only to realize I’d left it in the back room. “Here, I can put it in for you.” He handed me his phone, our fingers touching for a moment. I blushed like a teenager. Get it together, Sophie, I coached myself. I’d performed on some of the grandest stages in New York, London, Sydney, Paris and Moscow. But my hand had been steadier at a world premiere in front of an audience of hundreds than it was punching in the digits of my phone number into Liam’s phone. I did it wrong and had to delete and start over. “Thanks. I can call you and then you’ll have mine, too.” My phone rang with his call and I instantly forgot it was him calling. Rushing to the phone to pick up, I saw his name and tried to laugh it off. “Right, of course, it’s you calling.” “Like I said.” He tilted his head, laughing but not unkindly at my lack of composure.

“Who are you?” Eloise popped out of the cabinet. She’d climbed entirely into it to scrub the nether regions. From the smudges on her nose and cheeks, it looked like she’d found some proper filth. “Hi, I’m Liam.” He knelt down to her height and shook her soapy hand. “I see you’re here helping Sophie.” “I’m cleaning,” she answered gravely, communicating that the task was of the utmost importance. “You can help,” she offered, “but I think you’re too big to fit in here with me. Maybe Sophie can find something else for you to do.” “This is Eloise, my niece,” I introduced her. “And Liam’s going to take a look at the floor.” “Oh, well.” Eloise scoffed a bit, clearly sensing the inferior status of his task. “Just see you do a good job with it.” Uh-oh, some of my mother might have be rubbing off on her. I started to say something to make sure Eloise’s words didn’t sound too bratty, but then a tune from Tangled came on and she burst into song once again. “Your sister Margot’s daughter?” Liam asked, amusem*nt lighting up his eyes as he stood up again. I nodded, “Yes.” Of course he’d remember Margot. He’d been friends with my brother Ian since they were both ten. But it still felt strange. I was used to being surrounded by people who knew next to nothing about me or my family. People generally made the usual assumptions about my family’s wealth and privilege, but no one had actually met my brother or sister, and to them my mother was simply someone who would breeze through from time to time and take me to lunch at a members-only club. But Liam knew me, not just the polished and practiced self I presented to the world, but the real me. It felt disarming, unsettling, and wonderful all at once. “How’s Margot doing?” he asked. I looked at the floor, unsure how much to say. In rehab for her ongoing drug addictions was the obvious, honest answer. But if I said it, my mother would probably sense my breeching the family vault of silence from across the island and send a poison dart through a crack in the window before I finished the sentence. And I wasn’t sure how much I really felt ready to open up to Liam. We had a lot of history, so much unsaid, and a few recent rapid-fire rounds of fights under our belts. Maybe it was better to stay at the surface. “She’s all right, not great but getting by. She’s in Arizona for a few weeks and Eloise is staying with my mother and me.” Liam nodded, somehow seeming to understand all the spaces in between my prepared statement. I wondered if he’d heard about her struggles from talking to

Ian. But as far as I knew, my brother didn’t really talk to anybody. “Well, why don’t I take a look at that flooring?” He headed over to the problem corner, where I’d been informed it appeared as if there was extensive water damage. He took his time, examining the area from the inside and out, consulting me like a partner and not an idiot regarding what I’d learned about the problem so far. I’d learned there wasn’t much that could be learned until the floor planks were removed, so I’d requested and received permission from the historical society to remove the floor planks—so long as no damage came to them in the process and they were re-used in the restoration. Thank you Julia. “No damage in removal,” he repeated, not sounding incredulous but still not liking the restriction. “They’re not the original floorboards, but they do date back to the late 1800s,” I explained. “I get it,” he agreed. “I worked on a house last summer with the same deal. It can be done, it just takes more time and money.” “I know.” My voice threaded the needle between resigned and stubborn. “But I have to do what needs to be done.” “I can start on it day after tomorrow,” he offered. “I’d start today but I’ve got to get a different set of tools and the historical society will want you to file with them for a permit. And then I work tomorrow.” “At the station?” I asked. He nodded. “I can do some prep here, today,” he suggested. “I’ll need to clear everything out of this area, if that’s OK with you.” “I can help with that.” The corner of the back room had become a sort of office for me. I had a bunch of stuff piled up, mountains of paperwork, stacks of magazines for inspiration, some carpet, tile and fabric samples, plus a couple of ladders and a toolbox. Together, we moved things out of the way upstairs to the empty 2nd floor apartment. I didn’t know why he was suddenly being so nice to me, giving me that list and now pitching in, himself. But I decided to adhere to that wise old saying about gift horses and mouths. I kept my head down and accepted the help I so dearly needed, even if I didn’t exactly understand what was going on. Eloise pitched in, too, carrying one light object at a time with tremendous pride. Liam joked around with her, airplaning her down the stairs again after each delivery, zooming her around somehow balanced on his forearm. I tried not to stare too obviously at his muscles, bulging as he played so endearingly with my niece. “Again, again!” Eloise demanded every time he put her down. “You’ve got to do some work to earn it,” he informed her, pointing to something or other light enough for her to carry.

They laughed and chatted together like old friends, Eloise telling him about a naughty kid from her preschool and how he never shared. “I don’t like to share,” she confided in him, using a whisper. “But I do it anyway.” “I understand,” he agreed solemnly. “Sometimes I don’t like sharing, either.” His eyes quickly cut to mine, then back to Eloise. “You don’t?” Her eyes grew wide. He told her about how sometimes a guy would bring donuts to the stationhouse and they’d all disappear before he even got a chance to eat one. “That’s not fair!” she declared with all the indignation a fiveyear-old could muster. “It’s OK. When that happens, first thing I do after my shift is go buy a donut.” She nodded, evaluating the justice of the situation. After careful consideration, she stated, “It’s good to be a grown up.” “Sometimes,” Liam agreed before airplaning her down the stairs again. Setting her down again gently as she squealed and laughed, I couldn’t help making an observation. “You’re going to be a great father one day.” He looked right at me as he said thanks. I blushed at the intensity of his stare. That might have been too personal a comment. It hadn’t struck me as such at first, but then something in the way he looked at me reminded me of how we used to feel about each other. The way we’d talked about the future, as if being together and starting a family was a certainty. Until I’d walked away from it. Liam excused himself shortly thereafter, promising again to come by the day after tomorrow. “You don’t have to,” I reminded him, feeling shy. “And you have to let me know how much it’s all going to cost. I can give you a deposit, or, I don’t know how you bill—” “No charge, Sophie.” He had his back turned toward me as he spoke, walking out as I began to protest. “No, that’s ridiculous! Liam, you can’t—” “See you day after tomorrow!” “I like him,” Eloise declared by my side as we watched him cross the street, heading down to where I knew he must have a spot reserved for locals. Liam knew all the insider island tricks. But to work on my store and not even charge me? What was he thinking? “I like him, too,” I agreed, arm around Eloise. “Are you going to marry him?” she asked, stripping the relationship to its bones with childlike simplicity. “Doubt it.” Damn that wistful note in my voice. “Are you hungry?” I changed

topics to an immensely easier one. After a pastry from Cuppa Joe, a little more cleaning and a solid lunch at home, I took Sophie to the beach. Sitting there on the sand, watching her spin and laugh with the birds and surf, I felt it in my soul. I’d come home. That was where I belonged, where I could be my true self. Now I just had to work like hell to make it reality. It was going to take hard work and determination, but I’d prove I was more than just a poor little rich girl loafing around in mommy and daddy’s mansion living on her trust fund. I’d do whatever it took, run through fire and back to become a bona fide small business owner and contributing part of the community. “Dance with me, Auntie!” Eloise pulled on my hand and together we spun and twirled and leaped in the waves. She was the best dance partner I’d had in a long time.


THAT NIGHT my phone dinged with a text.

LIAM: You up?

I LET it sit there for a bit. Liam Connolly, texting me at ten o’clock at night, it felt surreal. I’d spent so many days, weeks, months, years apart from him but never forgetting. And there was also the guilty truth of what I’d been doing in bed right when I got the text. Remembering how he’d looked at me, that intensity I felt coursing through him, I knew he had such passion and fire beneath that congenial exterior he showed everyone else. I’d been lying in bed fantasizing about him while I touched myself. So it took me a few minutes to reply.


WHEN MY PHONE RANG, I jumped as if it had come alive. I hadn’t expected him to leveljump like that. What was next, him throwing rocks at my window to get me to

sneak out? He’d done it before. And now I wouldn’t even have to sneak. “Hey.” Sitting up in bed, I answered the call like it was no big deal talking to the one-and-only love of my life I’d thought was lost to me forever. No biggie. “What are you up to?” He sounded all casual. “Nothing much.” Definitely not wet and slightly breathy over a hot fantasy of you pushing me up against a wall and f*cking me hard. “I’ve been thinking about your project.” He started talking to me about flooring, how he thought he might approach removing it, how he figured it would be a good idea to bring over his buddy to get his opinion, too, since he’d just worked on a historic home with water damage. “Sounds good.” I sounded distracted, because really I was wondering what Liam was doing at 10 at night devoting all that time to a flooring project. “Sorry, am I boring you?” “No, no, not at all.” I quickly tried to dispel any misconceptions. “Thank you so much for your help. I know it’s a tough project, but I’ll do whatever it takes to get it renovated. I’m just…” I paused, searching for the right words in the midst of so many I wasn’t sure how to say. “I’m grateful you’re up at night thinking about the project.” He paused. Until he told me, “I’m up at night thinking about you.” I leaned back against the pillows, the weight of his words like a blanket over my body. I couldn’t stop thinking about him, either. I closed my eyes. “It’s good to see you again, Sophie.” His voice flowed low and intimate through the phone into the darkness of my bedroom. I swallowed. “You, too, Liam,” I whispered. We both sat there, phones in hand, so much unsaid. “I’ll let you get some sleep,” he offered, letting me go. I didn’t want to get off the phone. I wanted him at my window, throwing pebbles until I rushed out in my pajamas into his waiting arms to stay there and only there until the sun rose the next morning. “Sleep well,” I murmured. “You, too.” I sat there with the phone in my hand for a long time after he hung up. This was big stuff we were playing around with. I’d lived with George and felt much less for him than I did for Liam. That a brief conversation about relatively nothing at all could rock me to my core scared the hell out of me. But it was unavoidable. One way or another, it looked like Liam and I both still felt a strong pull. I just hoped it didn’t pull me apart.



I t took me a while to fall asleep after talking to Sophie on the phone. I could

picture her on the other end, lying in bed with her hair down, long and lush on her pillow. Back when I knew her she used to wear spaghetti strap tank tops and boxer shorts to bed, all thin, soft cotton. When she’d sneak out she used to drive me crazy on my lap in my truck, twisting against me and getting so wet as we made out. She’d always been so responsive. We’d always had explosive chemistry, every touch making us both crave more. It had been a mistake to call her. Just like it had been a mistake to stop by her store and offer my help, entering willingly, even eagerly into this entanglement. I barely recognized myself. Women were the ones who pursued me. All I did was head out, be my usual, friendly self and my phone lit up with flirty messages and calls. “What are you up to tonight?” “Come hang out!” “Thinking of you!” All I had to do was pick and choose. It worked for me. It kept me busy and required little to no effort. A bunch of the guys I knew were green with envy at how girls served themselves up to me on a platter. They thought it was because I was big, brawny and handsome, and, hell, that didn’t hurt. But they hadn’t learned my secret: paying attention. I guess I’d picked it up from growing up with my mom, having to be sensitive to even her nonverbal cues. I’d learned to watch for things like which shoulder she couldn’t raise after my father’s latest bender so I could jump in and get the dishes down from the top shelf. In my experience, if you paid attention to a woman, really listened and observed and asked the right questions along the way, it was all over. They’d lose their minds over you. And I didn’t mind doing it. Everyone had a story to tell. I wasn’t in a rush, generally. Paying attention was the secret to being a good dom, too. That might seem surprising. Lots of people thought domination meant selfishly inflicting pain. But

in my experience it took keen insight to intimately read a sub, understanding exactly what she needed before she even knew. True mastery only came through paying close attention. I was paying attention to Sophie. Close attention. But I was also playing with fire. I shouldn’t mess with a good thing. The set up I had worked for me. I worked the darkness out of me once a month off the island, then just enjoyed myself with casual fun the rest of the time on Naugatuck. I got my release, plus earned the happy, good guy reputation that mattered so much to me. It made no sense to pursue the one woman who could completely screw that up. I couldn’t be just one or the other with Sophie. She’d bring out all of me. Only that could never happen. Thankfully, I had a 24-hour shift at the station to keep my mind occupied. No storm this time, we still kept plenty busy with tourists doing stupid things like leaving on the gas and setting bonfires on the beach. It was all routine stuff we were able to keep at annoyance instead of catastrophe, tamping things down before any real problems emerged. But my mind still kept up a steady stream, repeating the same film reel, with Sophie in my arms just two days ago kissing me back so ardently, eagerly. After I clocked out I forced myself to try to get some shut eye, then headed over to her building around one. She was there when I knocked, fresh and pretty, walking toward the door to let me in with a spring in her step. She wore a simple little dress, light blue cotton, scooping at her neck and ending at her thighs. Hungry, I watched her hips sway as she led me toward the back of the store. “Thank you so much again!” She chatted sweetly, telling me how grateful she was, offering me some water. As she passed to fill a glass from the tap, she touched my shoulder. It was brief but I felt it everywhere. When she kneeled down to look at the flooring, she brushed against my side, a strand of her hair falling over my arm. I wanted to curl it around my finger, tug on it, hear her gasp again like she had when I took her mouth. I touched her, too. Helping her up, I brought my hand to her elbow. Only my touch was firmer, more intense. Her eyes flared at the contact. As I passed by her to get another tool from my truck, I brushed my hand along her lower back. I could feel her body sing to my touch, bending toward me with all of her dancer’s grace. Only this didn’t feel rehearsed or polished. This felt raw and primal, the need pulsing between us. I removed some floor planks, working slowly, prying them off with the utmost of care and avoiding any damage. What I found below looked like toothpaste gummed up and spread over a mess of rotten wood. I didn’t make too big a deal

over it, though. She had enough on her mind already. She only needed to know if it was unsalvageable, and it wasn’t. With enough time and effort I could set it right again, and I’d do that for Sophie. She hopped over to Cuppa Joe and came back with coffee and pastries. “Here.” She set them down on a countertop. “You need to take a break. I know you worked a 24-hour shift and now you’re right back at work again. You should have some of this chocolate croissant.” I rose and accepted her offer, savoring the sweet, flaky confection. “You’ve got some—” She giggled, sweeping her thumb up to the corner of my mouth. I flicked my tongue out where she touched me, lightly catching her and our eyes met. She blushed, stepping back, looking away. But I grabbed her hand before she could bring it down by her side. Wrapping my fingers around her, I gently grazed the pad of my thumb across the inside of her wrist. “Your pulse is racing.” I could feel it beneath my finger, the blood surging through her body in response to mine. “No,” she protested lamely, blushing more and giving a weak tug to her hand. “Yes, it is.” I backed her a step farther against the wall, bringing the wrist that told me all I needed up over her head, pinning it there in my grasp. She shivered, still not meeting my eyes, but not fighting to get away. Ducking my head down, I nuzzled into her hair, below her ear, scenting her. She tipped back her head, sighing, yielding. Down at her neck, I pressed my lips to her soft skin. “I can feel your pulse.” As I licked it, a low, soft moan escaped between her parted lips. “Your heart is pounding.” “Liam,” she pleaded. “What?” I wouldn’t give her anything until she asked. I wanted to own her, hear her voice, throaty and desperate, asking me to kiss her and so much more. I kept my mouth at her vulnerable throat, blowing softly against the wet skin. She quivered, her breath coming fast. With my free hand, I started drawing it slowly along her side, barely touching her skin, beginning at her arm stretched out above her head. Traveling down, I teased along her goose bumps and shivers, past the swell of her breast, the dip of her waist, to rest at the curve of her hip. She moaned as I stroked, the gentleness of my touch contrasting with the firm, rough grip I had on her wrist, trapping her against the wall. Through the thin cotton of her dress her nipples pebbled, taut and stiff. My co*ck swelled in response, knowing how wet she must be, how quickly I could make her cum with my mouth feasting on her. “What do you want, Sophie?” Close to her ear, I spoke low and hushed as my fingers made their lazy way along her side. Her body answered, but I wanted to hear

her confession. “Do you still think about me?” She panted and paused, but then admitted, “Yes.” I pressed her wrist harder into the wall. “And now you’ve come back.” Looking down at her nipples, the way she twisted under my grip, I wanted to do unspeakable things. I wanted to torment her, see how long I could force her to delay org*sm, make her beg and wish for punishment under my hand so she could request and be granted release. Sophie had made a grave mistake in returning to Naugatuck. “You shouldn’t have come back.” I grabbed her free wrist and joined it up over her head under my palm. She gasped as I trapped her, her eyes fluttering half closed for a moment in surrender and pleasure. I brought my fingers teasingly, lightly under the swell of her breasts, lifting them up to display her nipples. Grazing the tips with my thumb, I brought her attention to her own arousal. “I won’t be gentle with you, Sophie.” I pushed my thigh between her legs, parting them. “I’m not the man I was. Now, I want to bring you to your knees.” She made a fevered sound in her throat, arching her back toward me, asking with her body for more contact, intensity, friction. But I wouldn’t give it to her, not yet. I was enjoying her panting underneath me too much, the feel of the desperate need coursing through her, building, making her writhe, urgent sounds escaping her throat. That was what I wanted, needed, would feed on to soothe myself after all those years apart. “I’m going to make you beg, Sophie.” Dipping down, I sank my mouth into her neck, letting my teeth graze her in a bite. She cried out, head tilted more, offering herself to me to do whatever I wanted. “I know what you want, Sophie,” I whispered into her ear, low and wicked. “Do you?” “I—I don’t know,” she panted. “I’m scared.” “You should be.” Without another word, I broke away, leaving her there even as she strained against me. I leaned down, scooped up my tools and packed in seconds flat. She didn’t even have time to compose herself to speak. I headed out the door before I could do anything else to her. I drove back, barely aware of my surroundings, lust and the fierce urge to control and punish twisting within my gut. I had a monster inside of me. I could tell myself it was the way Sophie and I connected, the Dom/sub chemistry, our true natures revealed. But how did I know it wasn’t just the sick, sad*stic side of myself taking over? Part of me wanted to punish her so I could watch her writhe and beg for org*sm, then revel in her release once I finally let her go. But another part of me? That part wanted her to pay.

Seven years ago, she’d wrecked me, taken me for a ride and then vanished without a trace. I’d been 20 years old and felt like my life was over. Before she left, it hadn’t even occurred to me that she might. Of course she and I would move together to New York City. I’d never been an overly analytical guy and some things were so obvious they didn’t even seem to require an explanation. Sophie and I belonged together. Then she’d rejected me, taking off on her own. Talk about a sucker punch. What if this intense urge to dominate was really just a desire to punch her back? I’d seen my dad land a punch or two on my mom. I had his traitorous blood running through my veins. When I got home, I called Jax out in California. He was surprised at my call, but more than happy to have me out to visit over the long holiday weekend. As expected, he asked no questions. “Get your ass out here to Cali, man,” he encouraged me. “We’ll show you what a real party’s like.” Whatever, I didn’t care what we did, I just needed to get my head screwed on right. And to do that I needed to get some distance from Sophie. The next call I made was to the chief. I’d literally never asked for time off, so after giving me some sh*t for not giving him any notice at all, he told me to go have a good time. They’d figure it out. I’d done the same for many of the guys I worked with over the last two years. I appreciated now they’d do the same for me. Distance, that was what I needed, because Sophie had infected me like a virus. She’d taken the nice, stable life I’d set up for myself and been enjoying for years now and shaken it up like a snow globe. I didn’t even want to host my famous Fourth of July party. I’d leave town instead.


I’D BEEN out to California once before, and it always struck me the same way—bright as f*ck. As I stepped out of LAX the sunshine felt like it might make me burst spontaneously into flame. Jax laughed at me for not having sunglasses. “Masshole.” He elbowed me as we walked over to his truck. “Yeah, you know you’ve got some in you, too.” I elbowed him right back. He’d lived in Massachusetts as a kid, his mom and sometimes his dad coming out to Naugatuck as part of the seasonal labor force serving tourists’ needs. His mom had

worked as a maid and his dad had worked alongside mine on a couple of construction projects. I could still remember the first time we’d met. Both 10 years old, he’d sized me up like a Vegas card shark, deciding whether or not I’d rat him out if he told me what he had in his backpack. Thankfully, I’d passed his test. He’d taken me aside and whispered, “I’ve got bottle rockets, roman candles, and a bunch of firecrackers.” Then he’d made me his willing partner-in-crime by asking, “Where should we set them off?” A lifelong friendship was born. He was a long way away from Massachusetts now, though. Several years ago he’d made his way out to Southern California about an hour north of L.A., just down from Santa Barbara. From what I’d seen the couple of times I’d visited, he’d carved out a pretty sweet life for himself. The beach was a 15-minute drive from his place and the local girls dressed like they were on it even when they weren’t, with stringtie bikini tops and cutoff short shorts. He co-owned a bar with a buddy of his. Last we’d talked, business was booming. “Gonna be a rager of a weekend,” he assured me, settling into the freeway traffic. “Bring it.” I looked out the window, the golden hills so foreign to my eye. “You should move out here, man.” Jax smacked me on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you. You could work as a bouncer at the bar until you get your feet under you. And you could get work on the houses around here. Everyone’s building, remodeling, this place is exploding.” “It’s cool out here,” I agreed. But I wasn’t moving. The first reason was my mom. At first I’d stayed in Naugatuck to keep an eye on her with my dad around. Now I wanted to keep an eye on her since he was gone. And somewhere along the years, I’d realized I wasn’t staying in Naugatuck because it was the path of least resistance. It was because it felt like home and I liked it that way. “How’s your mom doing?” See, Jax looked like a badass with his black leather jacket, shaved head and tattoos. And he actually was a badass. There was no one I’d rather have my back in a fight. But he was more complicated than that. Deep down I knew he’d step in front of a train for me if I needed it. The list of people he cared about might not be that long, but for those people on it, he’d do anything. “Mom’s good. You know, getting on with life.” Jax came closer than most to knowing what a bastard my father was. Probably because his father was the same way, both of them angry, violent drunks. We’d both added a bunch more scars into the mix over the years, but our fathers had started us both off with our first few. “How’s business?” I asked. He spent the rest of the ride filling me in, the headaches with his partner, the drama with a couple of waitresses.

“You should be my business partner,” he added, giving me a glance to show he meant it. “Someone I can trust.” I nodded, realizing I was fortunate to know a bunch of people I could trust. Having spent my life in one small town, I could name a whole list of guys I trusted without hesitation. Even if I just began and ended with the guys at the station, that made a pretty good group. Maybe it was navigating dangerous situations together, but we were like family to each other. It sounded like Jax didn’t have that. But as we spent time together over the weekend, I saw he had a form of it. The local motorcycle club hung out at his bar and seemed to treat him as a brother. Only Jax told me he wasn’t an official member. “I’m not pledging allegiance to a violent psycho with daddy issues.” He nodded subtly toward a heavily bearded older guy, apparently the head of the MC. “I’m happier on the outside. But it’s good for business.” Not for the first time I felt like Jax was about to tell me something more, only he stopped himself before he did. The weekend passed in a blur of alcohol and women, as Jax had promised. We partied at the bar, in the back room of the bar, at his place, at his friend’s place. We even set off firecrackers on the Fourth, reminiscing about that first day we’d discovered our mutual love for pyrotechnics 17 years ago. I thought about Sophie the whole goddamned time. I thought about her while I watched some hot girl dance, imagining how good Sophie would look if she were there with me, moving to the music. It wasn’t fair to compare anyone to a professional, I knew that, but I couldn’t help it. I’d love to see Sophie dance again. From what I’d heard, she’d risen to become one of the best. No surprise there. But I still didn’t know why she’d walked away. When I’d been around her I’d mostly managed to yell at her, talk about flooring or paw at her like a teenager in heat. At a late-night party at Jax’s place, I sat out on the deck and thought about Sophie, even while sandwiched in-between two gorgeous swimsuit models on a sofa. They flanked me, their bare limbs brushing up against mine, their breasts pressing against my chest as they leaned in to giggle and whisper something in my ear. Looking at their thighs I thought about Sophie’s, that line where her dress had ended and her creamy skin had begun. How I’d pressed her against the wall, parting her thighs with mine and how she’d yielded, wanting exactly that. The problem with getting hard was whichever girls you happened to be near naturally assumed it was in reaction to them. That left you in an awkward situation if you didn’t want to do anything with them. Which, sadly, I did not. Disentangling myself from a sea of any normal man’s fantasy, I made my way over to Jax’s kitchen. Jax followed me soon thereafter. “What’s her name?” he asked, handing me

another beer. “What?” I tried playing dumb. I didn’t have much hope at succeeding, but it was worth a shot. “Who’re you hung up on? Because I’ve watched you turn away more puss* this weekend than a gay pop star.” I took a sip of beer, wondering if I should mention her. Jax knew how bad it had gotten after she’d left. He’d come out to Naugatuck in the aftermath and found me flattened out like I’d been run over by a cement mixer. But I figured, if I couldn’t mention her to an old friend, who could I mention her to? “Sophie,” I admitted. Jax let out a low whistle. “She’s back?” “She’s back.” “You’re f*cked.” “Thanks, man.” We clinked beer bottles. “Does Ian know?” “Won’t return my calls. Hasn’t in over a year.” Ian hadn’t even made it to Chase and Emma’s wedding. It was like he’d dropped off the face of the earth. “What’s she doing back on the island? I thought she was a famous ballerina or something.” I took a swig of my beer. “Yup. She did that. But now she’s back and wants to open a dance studio.” “No sh*t?” “It gets better. She’s bought this historic building that’s falling down all around her. Only she—” “Can’t fix it up because it’s historic,” Jax finished for me. He knew the deal. He’d helped his dad out on a few construction sites. “You got it.” “Let me guess.” He looked me in the eye, sizing me up as he was so good at doing. “You’re helping her with it.” I looked down at my sneakers. That was the thing about old friends, they knew you all too well. “You really are f*cked, my friend.” He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and leaned in. “Listen, forget all this heavy sh*t. You’re out in SoCal. There’s this girl out there, Katrina.” He gestured toward the living room. “She’s up for anything. Let me hook you up.” I shrugged. I knew I should say yes. I was single. I had a wild side that hadn’t been out to play in way too long. It would do me good to cut loose. Hell, it might even take the edge off this insane fever that still seized me, even 3,000 miles away.

But I couldn’t do it. I’d never been a good pretender. I was practiced at partial disclosure, keeping sides of myself private. But that was different from feigning interest when what I actually felt was nothing. That I couldn’t do. “Speak of the devil.” Jax stood up, welcoming a woman who’d just sauntered into the room. “I’m the devil, am I?” She gave him a devious smile, definitely up to no good, or at least ready to get up to no good at all. She wore what looked like a corset up top and her long, jet-black hair fell down her bare shoulders. Her black leather mini skirt barely covered the goods. “Is this your friend?” She gave me a flirtatious smile, swaying her hips as she approached, lazily tracing the necklace she wore that dipped down into her ample cleavage. “Hey, I’m Liam.” I nodded at her. “I hear you’re a firefighter.” “That’s right.” “I’m feeling hot already.” She fanned herself, looking up at me through her lashes. Jax burst out laughing at her brazen come-on and she flashed him an annoyed look. I smiled at her, knowing she’d be a perfect distraction. If only my mind wasn’t fixed like it had been super-glued on one woman and one woman only. “You know what?” Hand behind my neck, I shook my head. “There’s this phone call I need to make. I should probably go take care of that.” “Suit yourself.” Jax shrugged. I knew he thought I was making a mistake, but he knew me better than to try to talk me out of it. I could be stubborn as a mule. Katrina didn’t seem too bent out of shape. She shifted course seamlessly, now batting her eyes at Jax who accepted the attention with his usual disinterested charisma. I’d never seen women go more wild over a guy who stayed so aloof. But I guessed it was true, some women went bat-sh*t crazy over a bad boy and Jax was the original bad boy with a heart of gold. They’d have a fun night together. I excused myself and headed upstairs to the guest bedroom where I was staying. I’d said I had a phone call to make just because it was an excuse. But now I thought maybe I’d call Sophie. Once the idea got lodged in my head, I liked it. I could call her, check in. See what she was up to. I decided to send a text first.

LIAM: Hey.

NO IMMEDIATE RESPONSE. I looked at my screen, angry at it for not showing that light grey bubble with the dots, giving me that instant high of knowing Sophie was connected through our phones and responding to me. I tucked it in my back pocket, telling myself to chill out. I paced the room, feeling like a caged animal, wondering if I should head back down to the party, or even go for a walk around town. Then I heard my phone ding.


LIAM: You having a good weekend?

SOPHIE: Sure, you?

LIAM: I’m in CA visiting Jax.

SOPHIE: California?

LIAM: Yeah.

SOPHIE: I didn’t realize you were headed there.

LIAM: Spur of the moment.

NO RESPONSE. We both knew were verging on new territory. I clearly wasn’t texting her about her flooring.

LIAM: Are you in tonight?


LIAM: Can I call you?


AND JUST LIKE THAT, the sun rose on my evening.



W hen I say I spent the entire holiday weekend wondering where Liam was, I knew

it sounded pathetic. But it wasn’t as if I sat alone in my bedroom every day, chin resting in hand while I stared moodily out the window. I was busy, flitting here and there, meeting with people taking a look at my studio, attending a luncheon my mother had arranged, taking Eloise to a Fourth of July parade, plus meeting up with Whitney and Theo at a party. I couldn’t help it that no matter how busy I got, how much I had going on around me, my brain kept returning to him like a magnet pointing to true north. Some of my business was due to regular obligations. But part of it sprang from my own determination to not sit alone staring moodily out the window dreaming about my long lost love returning to me. I knew myself far too well. If I didn’t watch it, I could lose it hard over Liam all over again. I was already well on my way. That was the last thing I needed. I was finally getting my own feet firmly on the ground, setting my own rules, figuring out what really made me happy. I needed to get secure with my own voice before I invited in his. Honestly, I probably should set myself on a strict and fixed timeline regarding all men. A solid 12 months of celibacy would do me a world of good. I was already well into month number two. That meant 10 more…which meant my birthday, getting through the holidays alone, hmm… Anyway, I’d figure out the exact calculations at a later date. The point was I didn’t need to start obsessing again over Liam Connolly. No matter how gorgeous he was, like larger-than-life gorgeous, with all his strapping muscles and those piercing blue eyes and the intensity with which he held me. And the way he talked to me, holy sh*t. Men tended to treat me like a porcelain figurine, to be displayed and coddled. Liam had told me he wouldn’t be gentle. Why did that make me so wet? I’d thought of it so many times in the intervening days and especially nights. I didn’t want him to be gentle with me. The feel of his

calloused hand holding my wrist against the wall, it had gotten me so wet. I didn’t understand it, other than to recognize it must tap into something primal in me. There was something between us that got expressed in an honest, stripped-down way, raw and real. That was why I needed to keep busy, really busy, if I had any chance at staying on my own gravitational axis. I’d only just found it, and already I was getting pulled off. I’d spent too many years dancing to other people’s rhythms. Now it was time to move to the beat of my own drum. The day after the Fourth, I got some good news about plumbing. Apparently the pipes in the second floor had been updated more recently. Whoever had done it had done it on the sly, without procuring approval from the historical society, but what they didn’t know they never needed to find out. It meant that I had clear running water in the unit I wanted to move into. I figured I might just go ahead and do that, sooner rather than later. Fixing myself a salad in the kitchen, humming and smiling as I worked, my mother rounded the corner, instantly suspicious. “What has you in such a good mood?” she asked, sounding as if she were accusing me of a crime. Professor Plum in the ballroom with the wrench. “Things are going well with the studio,” I ventured. The topic almost always provoked conflict, but soon we wouldn’t be living under the same roof anyway. “You’ve got a long way to go with that building.” She shook her head and poured herself some tonic water with lime. “And good luck finding people to help you with it over the summer.” “Liam’s helping me.” The words tripped out of my mouth before I’d thought about saying them. Instantly, it felt as if the air had been sucked out of the room. “Liam?” she asked, her voice quiet but deadly. “Liam Connolly?” “Yes,” I replied firmly, refusing to back down in any way. “He’s given me a list of names, and they’ve all been really helpful. And he’s helping me with the flooring himself.” “Oh, I bet he is.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Well, you’re still the gravy train you were back at 18. He knows a paycheck when he sees one.” “You are way out of line.” I could feel my temperature rising with every second we spent in that kitchen. “I’ve seen a lot more of this world than you have.” “Don’t talk to me like I’m a child.” “While you’re living under my roof, you’ll respect me as a child does her

parent.” “Speaking of that,” I took a deep breath, “I’m moving out.” I reminded her about the second story of the building I’d purchased and the apartment I planned on living in. “This is crazy!” she declared as if I’d just told her I was joining the Marines. “Mom, you need to get some perspective. This is a perfectly normal, sane thing for me to be doing.” “Did that Connolly boy put you up to this? That sneaky Irish—” “Oh really? Like we’re so different with our Scottish heritage?” “Half Scotch, half English.” She drew herself stiffly up to her full height. “Seriously, I can not have a conversation about this with you.” If my mother wanted to see crazy, she should look in the mirror and keep talking about the superiority of her British ancestry to my father’s Scotch or, God forbid, Liam’s Irish background. “He’s always had a hold over you,” she continued. “He nearly persuaded you to ruin your dance career before it even began—” “Mom—” “And now you’re doing it again, leaving the stage in favor of what? A crumbling studio where you’ll teach fat, snotty kids how to twirl around?” “Maybe that’s what I want to do with my life.” “Such a waste. All my children, they’re all wasting their lives.” “Thanks, Mom. I know I can speak for all of us when I say we really appreciate your support.” I didn’t mean to revert to sarcasm, the language of adolescence, but honestly she cut so deep it was a reflexive defense mechanism. What else was I supposed to do, stand there in the kitchen with tears streaming down my face? I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. As I started to leave the room, she got in one, last parting shot. “If your brother knew you were back together with that boy he’d never forgive you.” I turned around, white hot with fury. “The only one who never forgives anyone, mother, is you. Ian never blamed Liam for what happened.” “So you tell yourself. But we all know he’s to blame.” “Stop it!” I screamed, hands up over my ears as if I could fight off the poison she poured out with every word. “How are you still so angry?” “He crippled my baby. See how you’d feel if that ever happened to you. I bet you’d fall apart. You’d never get out of bed again.” She spat out her words with venom, glaring at me with pure hatred in her eyes. “I’ve got to get out of here.” I spoke more to myself than to her. It was pointless trying to reason with my mother, brimming over as she was with bitterness and

blame. Instead I ran upstairs and started shoving clothing into a suitcase. I could grab enough to spend the night, then come back some time when she wasn’t there to get the rest. I couldn’t believe she still hadn’t let go of her hatred of Liam. After the accident, we’d all given her a wide berth, accepting if not necessarily understanding the deep pain she felt as she helplessly watched her son struggle with second and third degree burns covering 70 percent of his body. It was something no one should have to go through, not Ian, not his mother. It had twisted her up inside, and she’d latched onto the idea that Liam was somehow to blame. He was a firefighter’s son. In her eyes, that meant he should have known how to handle the accident. She’d fixated on her version of events. According to her, Liam had abandoned Ian on a burning boat, leaving him lying trapped under a fallen mast in the flames. Even in the direct aftermath, I’d never bought her version of the story. They never should have stolen a boat and taken it out for a joyride, that much I could agree on. But who could find fault in any of their actions during the sudden storm that splintered the boat? Chase had gone overboard and from what it sounded like, Liam had acted heroically by jumping in after him, dragging him back up to the surface and tying them both to a life raft. If he’d stayed on board with Ian, Chase would have died. Plus, Jax had been on the boat with Ian. Why didn’t she blame him? Even back as a teenager, I’d never listened to her version of the accident. But at 18 I had listened to her advice about leaving Liam. She’d taken it as a personal affront when we’d started dating, as if I’d done it to personally injure her. I’d kept it secret as long as I could, but she’d sniffed it out and made my life hell for the six remaining weeks of the summer. And then she’d won. She’d persuaded me to end things. I’d regretted it instantly. I just hadn’t realized I’d still be regretting it seven years later.


I WAS at my new apartment when I got the text from Liam. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since that intense afternoon at the studio. He was in California? I’d had no idea. I’d lain out a yoga mat and a thick blanket on the hardwood floor, but it still felt

like lying on a rock. So I sat up, reading to keep my mind occupied. Then he asked if he could call me. Holy crap. I didn’t know what was going on, had no idea what was going through his mind about all of this. I didn’t even know my own mind. I hadn’t dated anyone like Liam in the intervening years. Then again, I never met anyone else even remotely like him. My one serious boyfriend, George, had been European, the son of a diplomat, older than me by six years. He’d dripped with worldliness and sophistication, culture and refinement. But he hadn’t really gotten to me at all. Liam turned me on more with just a look than anyone had since…well, since him. Now that I saw him again, I had to wonder what I’d been thinking, devoting time to any other man. Anyone else so obviously paled in comparison. But that was the thing, I hadn’t had Liam to compare them with. I’d thought he was out of my life forever. Now that he was back, it was like the lights had been turned on and I looked around wondering what the hell I’d been missing. I told him yes, he could call me. And then I waited. If there was one thing I hated it was waiting for a man to call me. Childishly, I contemplated turning off the ringer just to show my defiant independence. See, I didn’t need him to call me. But then I’d miss his call and I didn’t want that to happen. Finally, a full 20 minutes after he’d asked and I’d said yes, my phone rang. “Hey.” I sounded breathless even though I’d been sitting the whole time. My pulse was racing, though. “Hey.” His voice sounded low and smooth and just like that, every cell in my body began to hum. I didn’t know how or why what we had between us felt so electric, but it was undeniable. “What are you up to?” “Just hanging out in my new apartment.” I told him how one of his plumber friends had come by and checked everything out, telling me the second story was good to go. Liam had some specific questions I was unable to answer about what, exactly, in the plumbing had been updated and where, specifically, his friend had discovered severe corrosion in the street-level studio. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember. As soon as he told me I didn’t need to touch the plumbing in the apartment, all I could think about was moving in.” “Happy to not live with your mom anymore?” “Yeah.” I paused, knowing he was well acquainted with my mother. He knew exactly how she operated and what she thought of him. It was a funny thing about family, though. As much as I trashed her in my head, to another person I suddenly felt defensive. She had been through a lot, with her son crippled physically and her other daughter crippled by drugs. “I love her,” I found myself asserting. “It’s just

complicated living with her.” “Of course,” he agreed, not pressing. “I couldn’t love my mom more but it would be tough living under the same roof.” Then he paused. “I’m actually living in the cottage we used to rent out.” “The one right on the water?” I remembered how pretty it was, with so many windows facing the waves. The main house was set back a ways from the ocean, all the better to weather storms. But the cottage had such romance and charm. “I love that place.” “I remember showing it to you.” My mind swirled with memories even as my body thrilled to his voice, like oil and water, messing side by side in a confusing mix. I remembered the day he’d shown the cottage to me, too. Vacant between vacation rentals, that was where I’d lost my virginity. I cleared my throat, filling the silence. “How’s Jax?” He told me about the house, the bar Jax owned, and the Southern California laidback vibe of the town where he lived. “Sounds pretty cool.” Suddenly, I felt worried. What if Liam decided to stay out there with his friend? “It is. But it’s not for me.” “No?” Relief flooded through me. Ridiculous, I knew, but there it was all the same. “I’m too New England,” Liam admitted. “I need to get up every day and work. These people out here chillax all the time. It’s not in my DNA.” I laughed, struck by our similarity. It wasn’t that I didn’t like down time. I loved hanging out with friends or curling up in cozy sweats to read or watch a fun movie. But too much idle time on my hands made me absolutely crazy. What had I sought immediately after I’d moved back to Naugatuck? An all-consuming project to which I could devote my heart, mind and soul. “I blame the Pilgrims,” I declared. “All work and no play.” “Yeah, they put something into the drinking water,” he agreed. “Only I do like to play sometimes.” My breath caught in my throat. The way he said play, all low and rough. Hot damn I wanted to play with him. “Are you all ready for bed?” he asked. “Pretty much.” It was midnight East Coast time so I’d already washed and brushed. “I’m here on my yoga mat bed in my PJs.” “A yoga mat for a bed?” “I don’t have a mattress yet.” “Sophie.” I could almost picture him shaking his head. “Why didn’t you wait

until I was home to move in? I could have helped you drive things over in my truck.” But then he added, seeming to remember, “Or, I’m sure you could just pay movers.” “No, thank you, that’s really nice of you to offer.” I’d love spending time with him in the cab of his truck, just the two of us in such close quarters. I bet I could smell him as I sat there by his side, feel his body heat even if we didn’t touch. “Maybe when you get back. When do you get back?” “Tomorrow.” “Oh good.” I couldn’t stop the happiness from flooding my response. I was sure he could hear my wide smile through my voice. “I have a shift right when I get back. But Thursday I’m all yours.” Uh-oh, that sounded even better. Where the hell was this heading? I needed to be careful with this man. I should get off the phone. But then he continued, “So you’re in your PJs?” “Yup.” The way he asked, it sounded as if he pictured me in something sexy, silky and lacy. Too bad for him, I explained, “I’m just in a tank top and boxer shorts. Nothing special.” “You still sleep in a tank top and boxer shorts?” He didn’t sound any less interested. If anything, his voice sounded even huskier. “In the summer.” Why did I suddenly feel way too hot for even a sheet? I kicked it off, stretching out my legs in the air. I had a window cracked open an inch, no more because I didn’t have any screens. But I loved sleeping with fresh air, especially ocean air on Naugatuck. “I remember you wearing that when you’d sneak out.” I exhaled deeply, remembering that too vividly. I’d wait in my bedroom to hear the sharp, light click of a pebble against my window. He’d text me, too, of course, but there was something old fashioned and exciting about hearing that pebble to let me know he’d parked his truck down the road and walked over to stand beneath my window. Very Romeo and Juliet. “I can’t believe we never got caught.” I laughed, recalling how many times I’d snuck down the back stairs. The last couple of weeks we’d been together I think I’d snuck out every single night. “We got lucky,” he agreed. And then he asked, “Do you have on one of those little spaghetti strap tops like you used to wear?” It just happened to be a barely-there stretchy camisole. I brought my fingers up to the strap, fingering it. “Yes,” I whispered, feeling the conversation take a new, intimate turn. “What color is it?”

“It’s sort of a pale pink.” I looked down, seeing my stomach rise and fall as my breathing picked up. My nipples had pebbled as well, pushing against the fabric. And he hadn’t even touched me. “Is it long? Or does it end at your waist?” “At my waist.” I reached down to the hem, tracing the edge that ended just above my belly button. It was almost as if he were touching me, my skin shivering under his fingers. “You know one thing I always liked about those boxer shorts?” “What?” “They’re so easy to slip off. Why don’t you slide them down your legs for me, Sophie.” Almost in a trance, I did as he said, slipping them down my legs and kicking them to the side. I ran my hands up my bare skin, wishing it were his palms instead of mine. “Tell me what you see when you look down.” “Well…” I felt shy. I hadn’t done this, talking dirty over the phone. If that even was what we were doing. I had no idea, but I didn’t want to think anymore. I just wanted to feel. “I see my legs.” “Bare?” “Yes.” I twisted a bit, rubbing my feet and toes together as I began to feel a throbbing deep in my core. “Now look farther up and tell me what you see.” I fingered the edge of my panties, blushing. They were plain, too, just simple bikini briefs. “I see my panties.” “Tell me what they look like, Sophie.” His voice rolled out low and so f*cking sexy I could feel myself growing wet just listening to him speak. “They’re pale pink like my top.” “Um hmm.” He encouraged me to go on. “They’re bikini briefs.” “Low cut?” “Yes.” I traced the edge, imagining it were his fingers, him there with me in the dark bedroom. “And there’s a small rose in the center.” “Touch that rose for me, Sophie.” “Yes,” I whispered, bringing my fingers over to the rose, doing as he asked me. I pressed my thighs together, feeling the heat build as my need grew. “Now I want you to slip them off. Tell me when you’ve done it.” With a slight sigh, I hooked my thumb under the panties and slid them down my legs, then off onto the floor. Completely naked, I closed my eyes and listened to the

sound of his breathing on the other end of the call. It sounded dark and deep, as if he were right there with me and I were resting on his chest, kissing his throat the way he’d kissed mine last week. “I took them off,” I confessed into the darkness. “Good. Now spread your legs for me.” I moved my thighs apart, first one, then the other, moving slowly, deliberately. I wished he could see. “Have you done as I’ve asked?” “Yes,” I whispered. “It feels good, lying there spread open for me, doesn’t it Sophie?” I laughed, breathy and nervous, looking down at myself and feeling so exposed even though we were just on the phone. A wave of self-consciousness swept over me and I started closing my legs. “Answer me when I ask you a question, Sophie,” he demanded, his voice sounding darker, rougher. “OK,” I panted, holding still at his command. “Now.” “Yes,” I admitted quickly, eyes closed again, losing myself to this, to him. “Yes, Liam, it feels so good.” My free hand wandered down to my inner thigh, caressing the sensitive skin there, wanting to move up but somehow knowing I needed to wait, wait until he told me. “Put the phone on speaker, Sophie. I want you to be able to use both of your hands.” “All right.” I reached over and hit the speaker button, then rested the phone next to me on the pillow so he could speak directly into my ear. I felt nervous but so aroused, the need pulsing through me overcoming my shyness. “Now bring one of your hands down to your puss*, baby. And tell me how it feels.” I gasped at his words, so intimate, so naughty, but it was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to touch myself under his command and admit it all, how good he made me feel, how crazy I was for him. I slid my hand up, just inches away, and pressed my fingers against my slick puss*. So wet for him after just his words, I moaned. “Tell me how wet you are for me.” “Yes.” I started to slide my fingers along. “I’m so wet.” “Good. That’s so good, baby.” “Mmm,” I moaned, circling my cl*t, feeling the ache and throb grow more intense. “That’s right, touch yourself for me.”

“Yes,” I cried, moving faster, needing more pressure, impatient, wanting to race to the finish. “You touch yourself and you listen to me. But don’t you cum until I tell you, do you understand?” “Yes,” I whimpered, feeling so controlled, so fevered, desperate to cum but even more turned on that he wouldn’t let me. “I like you slick, Sophie. I want you like that. The next time I see you I’m going to check and see if you’re nice and slick. I want you to wear a dress for me, something short like you had on the last time I saw you. Do you understand?” “Yes,” I panted, twisting against my hand, mouth open, so close yet not letting myself cum. “I’m going to make you pull your dress up and take down your panties. Then you’re going to slide your finger down into your puss* like you’re doing right now so I can watch. You might feel shy, Sophie, but I know you. You’ll be a good girl for me. You’ll touch yourself and show me how wet I make you.” “Yes,” I moaned, picturing touching myself while he watched. “Remove your fingers,” he ordered. I groaned in protest, but did it. “Look at them.” I brought them to my face and looked at them all sticky and covered with my arousal. “You’ll show me your fingers, all sticky and wet. You’ll show me how much you need this. How much you need me.” “Yes,” I whispered, wanting him to make me do that. Needing it. Needing him. “Good.” He breathed into the phone, his praise sending a ripple of pleasure coursing through my body. “Now I think you’ve earned a reward. You’ve been very good, doing as I ask. You may bring your fingers back to your puss*.” I sighed with need as I returned my fingers to my slick cl*t, working it fast, a sheen of sweat forming on my body. “And with your other hand, pull your tank down so your breasts are exposed.” Groaning, arching my back, I did as he told me, pulling my camisole down until my breasts spilled out. “That’s it,” he encouraged. “Now grab your tit and squeeze your nipple. Squeeze it hard, Sophie. Make it hurt.” I cried out as I did it, loud into my pillow by the phone, twisting my nipple and my head, mouth open in pain and pleasure. “Now cum,” he commanded. My org*sm flooded me, taking over completely, every thought, feeling, particle of my body consumed by ecstatic pleasure. I convulsed, grinding my puss* into my hand, whimpering and crooning and sighing into the phone as I slowly melted down into complete and total serenity. “That was very good, Sophie.” His words smoothed over me like a gentle caress,

kneading my limbs, enveloping and embracing all my senses. “You should get some sleep now. I’m looking forward to seeing you soon.” “I can’t wait to see you, Liam,” I murmured, all my defenses down, nothing but honest emotion in my voice. “Me, too. Good night.” He ended the call and after a few seconds, I moved my hand up to do the same. My eyelids closed, heavy like lead. What was this between us? I couldn’t even begin to understand, but I knew I didn’t just want more. I needed more.



I flew back home, grateful to Jax for being the ultimate host. He didn’t even try

talking me into moving out to Cali. He could tell it wasn’t going to happen. The flight took too long. As eager as I’d been a few days ago to get some distance, now I needed to be right by Sophie’s side. Back when we’d spent the summer together, we’d had chemistry. Our physical connection had been intense. But we hadn’t known what we’d been doing, who we were to each other. Not really. Now, though, I sensed it. I knew it in my bones, like an animal instinct. Sophie needed to serve and please the way I needed to dominate. And my discipline and punishment could set her free in a way only I knew how. We’d agreed via text to meet at her family’s house at noon on Thursday. Her mother would be out playing bridge and I could help her move over the last of her stuff. She told me she hadn’t hired movers because she didn’t need to—she wasn’t bringing much from her mom’s. The only new thing she’d bought so far was a mattress, same day delivery. There at twelve o’clock sharp, the house looked exactly the same as it had years ago when I pulled up in my truck. I never used to park right at the front door. Usually I’d parked out on the street and walked in to meet her as she snuck out. This time, though, we needed easy access to load up her stuff. And I was 27, so f*ck it. The gravel crunched beneath my work boots as I headed up to the front door. I didn’t have a chance to knock. She opened the door at my arrival, looking flushed, excited and wearing a dress. Simple as it was, it instantly made me hard. I’d told her to wear a dress for an express purpose, and she’d done it. She blushed as she saw me, keeping some distance between us, not quite meeting my eyes. “Thanks for coming.” She spoke quickly, nervously. “I’ve got everything in boxes stacked down here.” I got right to work, lifting and hauling, and she carried a few out to the truck herself. It hardly took ten minutes to get it all packed up.

Driving over, I talked nonsense about the flight and the California town where Jax lived. She stayed relatively silent, shifting around in her seat, biting her nails a bit. “You glad to be moving out?” I asked. She nodded. “I never meant to move back in with my mom. I didn’t think she was going to spend so much time out in Naugatuck.” “She’s been out here the whole summer?” I remembered from the past, her mother had come and gone from a suburb of Boston to the island, flitting back and forth. “The whole time.” She exhaled. “I love her, but, I swear, I think she’s practically pickled herself in this stew of old anger and pain.” She paused, seeming to grow slightly self-conscious. “I don’t know if that makes any sense.” “It does.” “I guess it’s her choice if that’s how she wants to live. But I don’t want to be around it. And I’m sorry Eloise has to be around it. But I’ll have her come stay with me when I can. She’s sleeping over tomorrow night.” “You’re a good aunt.” We exchanged a smile and she brightened right up at the compliment, practically shining with pleasure. I liked the look on her. At her building, I hauled the boxes upstairs, insisting she let me do the strenuous labor while she started unpacking. “I’m glad you’ve got your own place.” I stood in the main room, surveying the empty apartment. “It feels good.” She nodded, looking around as well. “Want the tour?” she asked, making herself laugh. “It won’t take long.” She showed me the main room, the kitchenette, the small bedroom and the adjoining bathroom. It wasn’t much, but it looked clean and more recently updated than the first floor. Someone had bent the rules, but it looked like Sophie was going to benefit from it. “I like it.” I looked out her bedroom window, where she could see a patch of blue. “And an ocean view.” “I know!” She came to join me, standing by my side. “I love that when I crack the window at night I can smell the ocean.” “Did you have the window open the night we talked?” I looked down at her, able to picture her now in that room. “I did.” She blushed and didn’t meet my gaze. “I enjoyed our conversation,” I continued, recognizing she felt uncomfortable but feeling like we needed to get it out there. I knew we were both thinking about it. “Me, too,” she offered in a whisper of a voice. But I’d heard it. “I’m glad.” I paused, not wanting to frighten her. I could tell she felt skittish. But I didn’t want to hold back, either. We had to find out what this was between us.

“Have you thought about it since?” “Yes.” She looked up to meet my eyes briefly, then down again, biting her lip. She looked so beautiful standing there, flushed and sweet, wearing a little dress like I’d asked her to. It was short, like I’d wanted. Short enough to provide easy access. I leaned down and whispered privately in her ear, “Have you touched yourself thinking about it?” She nodded her response, quick and shy. “You’ve made yourself cum thinking about it, haven’t you, Sophie?” This time she answered, “Yes.” “I’d like to see that.” I reached out and stroked a strand of her hair, playing with it between my fingers like soft, delicate silk. “You remember what I told you I wanted when I came back.” She nodded slowly, seeming unable to speak again. “You don’t have to do it. You understand that, don’t you?” Gently, I caressed the tip of her chin, tilting her head up so she’d look into my eyes. “I’m a demanding man, Sophie. But you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. If this isn’t what you want, you need to tell me. I’ll walk out of here and leave you alone. I swear I will.” “No,” she answered with certainty. “I don’t want you to go.” She looked up at me, full and honest. “I’m confused and a little scared, but I want to see what’s between us.” “I want that, too, Sophie.” I lightly stroked her cheek with my thumb. “But you have to talk to me and tell me how it feels for you. Because I have a feeling you’ve never done the kinds of things I want to do to you.” She shivered, her eyes half lidded as she asked, “What kinds of things?” Images flashed in my mind of her tied up, her ass red from a spanking, her nipples twisted in a clamp while I slowly played with her puss*, refusing to let her cum. I’d want to f*ck her ass in front of a mirror so she could see it, too. “You’ll see,” I said. “We’ll start slow and only ever do what you want.” But I had a feeling she’d want it all. I knew where I’d like to start. She looked so nervous, like a cornered jackrabbit. But her nipples stood out hard under her bra, so hard I could see them through her dress. That was just how I wanted her, a bit of edge to her arousal to heighten the sensation. “I like how you wore this dress for me, Sophie.” I slowly stroked her bare arm, down to her elbow and up again. “Just like I asked you to.” She looked down and blushed. She liked pleasing me, following my orders. That was very good. “I like how short it is.” We both looked down at the short hemline, hitting mid-

thigh. “I can see so much of your legs.” “Thank you.” She laughed nervously. Stern and commanding, I turned into her disciplinarian. “But you know what I want you to do.” Her eyes widened at the switch in my tone. “Pick up your dress for me.” “Wait, what?” “You know what I said.” I wasn’t going to repeat it. She bit her lip and stepped to the side of the window. With shaking hands she reached down and inched up the hem of her dress, slowly, slowly. I’d teach her to respond more quickly, doing what I asked instantly and obediently. But for now, I’d let her take her time, adjust to the feeling of surrendering control. If she needed to go slow at first, I’d let her. But then I’d control the pace. She gathered up the dress so the fabric grazed her puss*. “More,” I demanded. She jumped slightly at my order, startled, but she complied, faster this time, picking it up so she revealed herself from the waist down. She wore sheer little panties with a lace hem. I could see the lips of her shaved puss* underneath. “You’re bare,” I murmured, taking in the gorgeous sight of her in the broad daylight. “Yes.” Breathing fast, her eyes darted to the side. I could tell she felt intensely nervous. “Do you…is that OK? Do you like that?” I smiled. I liked that she cared, that she felt nervous and wanted to please me. “I like it both ways with you, Sophie. You’re gorgeous. But this is a fun way to start.” She tucked her head down slightly, blooming rosy and smiling. “Now I’m going to need you to slip your panties off.” Her gaze flickered uncertainly to mine, questioning and hesitant. I held it steady, reassuring her, solid and constant. I had her. She could let herself go, trust me. I’d never do anything to her she didn’t want. But I would introduce her to things she had no idea yet that she wanted. Feeling reassured, she bent and slid her panties down, kicking them to the side. The she rose again, pulling the hem of her dress up, far enough up that I could get a good view. She nearly took my breath away. The sweet V between her legs, bare for me, even from this angle as she stood I could see it glistening. Wet for me, as promised. My Sophie. Part of me wanted to take her into my arms, cover her in kisses. Drop to my knees and kiss her there, right where I could make her quiver and melt, feel her org*sm on my tongue, in my mouth. But she wasn’t the only one who needed things to move slowly. This felt like a

rushing Tsunami to me as well. I’d been completely in control for the past seven years, not a single woman finding a chink in my armor. I’d had fun, lots of it, but no woman had made me feel anything close to Sophie. She could bring me to my knees, literally and figuratively. So for today, I’d start by making her touch herself and show me. “Touch yourself, Sophie.” Almost as if she needed the privacy, she closed her eyes as one of her hands slowly traveled down her stomach, down to her puss*. Tentative, shy, she took just one finger and slid it down. Her eyes closed, her mouth slightly open, she started moving her hand, gliding one, then two fingers along her sex. “Stop.” I left the room. Returning quickly, I set an unpacked box at her feet. “Part your legs and put one of your feet up on this box.” She did as she was told. “Wider.” She spread her thighs, lifting up her dress and tilting her hips at an angle. Now I could see more of her, her puss*, glistening wet for me, on better display. “Touch yourself again,” I commanded. “Show me how you do it.” She closed her eyes, losing herself to sensation as she began to circle her cl*t. Her breathing grew more rapid, the hand grasping her dress clenching tight. “Does that feel good, baby?” I asked, seeing her answer all over her body but wanting to make her say it. Making her admit her arousal to herself, to me, that was an essential part of her submission to my dominance. “Mmm-hmm,” she moaned, her movements growing quicker. “Stop and show me your fingers.” Her eyes flew open at my order and she responded, taking her fingers from her puss* and holding them up for me to inspect. In the sunlight, we could both see them dripping with her sweet, slick arousal. “You see how hot that is?” I asked her holding her wrist, keeping her fingers up where we could both get a good look. “You’re so turned on.” “Yes,” she whispered her confession. “You want to touch yourself some more,” I murmured to her, letting her know I understood. Caressing her hair, I let her know it was all right to feel that way. She could let herself go with me. “Yes,” she admitted with a needy moan. “Good. Keep your thighs nice and wide apart for me when you touch yourself. I want to see everything.” She sighed as she complied, spreading those flexible hips and opening herself to me as she leaned against the wall and fingered her dripping puss*. Her skin a feverish pink, her puss* lips spread apart, she was getting herself close, fast. “I want to see you f*ck yourself with your fingers,” I growled, watching her work. “But you need to do it slow. Go slow for me.” She moaned in needy

frustration, taking her fingers away from her swollen cl*t. Then slowly, oh so slowly, she thrust them up inside, then drew them out, in and out, in and out. “I like watching you do that,” I murmured, husky. “And you like showing me.” “Yes,” she moaned, opening her thighs even wider. “You like showing me how much I turn you on.” “Oh yes.” Her fingers moved faster in response. “Watching you makes me hard, Sophie.” I groaned and palmed my length, pressing against my jeans. Her eyes flew to my hand, feasting on the bulge I cupped. “You’ve done this to me. You like knowing that, don’t you?” “Yes.” Her voice sounded low and drugged with heated passion. I liked getting her into that space, where she’d open up and do what she really wanted. “You need to cum,” I observed with compassion. She nodded, admitting it to me. “I know you need to cum. But there’s something I’d like to show you first. Do you trust me?” “Yes.” “Place your hands down by your sides.” She did as she was told, but slow and reluctant. Naughty girl. I needed her to listen to me and understand. “What I want to do to you may feel uncomfortable at first. So I need you to look into my eyes and tell me. Do you trust me?” “Yes, Liam,” she instantly replied, looking up at me with wide eyes. “I trust you.” “Good. But if it gets to be too much for you, just say stop.” “Really?” “Yes. Tell me to stop and I will.” We looked at each other, nodding in agreement, her eyes wide with anticipation. I took her hand, savoring the slickness of her fingers, gliding mine along hers. She followed me into the bathroom. “Wait here for me and undress. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I left her standing in the middle of the tile floor, unsure but wanting. I headed to her closet and searched for something I could use. At my house, of course I had a whole bag of tricks, but I hadn’t brought them. I hadn’t planned on doing this today. I hadn’t even planned on touching her today. But now I knew I needed more. She did, too. She needed to start her lessons, revealing the true nature of herself and what aroused her most. Finding a dress, I removed the tie from the waist. That would do. I returned to find her sitting perched naked on the rim of the tub, nervously biting her lip. The sight of her bare breasts made my nostrils flare, my jaw clench in lust. They were larger than when we’d last been together, probably because she’d gained a bit of weight on her ballerina’s frame. I loved it, the extra ten or so giving

her more curves, more feminine softness. Her breasts were the perfect shape, rounding up into pink tips so sensitive, so needy. They’d get the attention they craved in a few minutes. “Stand up,” I ordered, keeping my clothes on. Today was all about power, giving and receiving. There was a lot for her to learn. “I’m going to bind your wrists together. Have you ever been tied up before?” I tried to keep my voice steady and level as I asked. I wanted her to be honest. But if she admitted she’d done it in the past with other men, I might lose my mind. “No, never.” I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. “I don’t want to hurt you, Sophie. You tell me if it’s too tight. You need to keep your circulation. But you won’t be able to move your arms. Do you understand?” “Yes.” She brought her wrists together in front of her body. The sight of her standing before me, completely naked, offering her wrists together to be tied fired me through with animal lust. I groaned low in my throat, grabbed her rough enough to make her gasp and wrapped the cloth belt around her wrists once, twice, three times then tied it tight. “Over here,” I guided her to the edge of the tub, bringing her wrists above her head and over to the shower curtain rod where I could fasten the edges. I wrapped it around a few times, again tying a tight, expert knot. Then I stepped back, surveying my handiwork. She stood at her full height, her wrists above her head bound together and fastened to the rod. Her ribs stood out, her breasts quivering as she shook and panted, twisting slightly against her restraints. “Are you in pain?” I wanted it tight, but not too tight. Her hands didn’t look red, no sign of circulation being cut off. “No, but it does feel… it feels strange.” “Yes.” I nodded. It would. She’d never done it before. “You’re vulnerable like this. Exposed.” She shivered at my words, her breathing coming fast. “I can do anything I want to you.” A needy moan escaped her lips as I heightened her anticipation, feasting on her body with my eyes, traveling up her legs, examining her glistening puss*. She’d gotten herself so close to org*sm. She must be throbbing there still, aching, needing release. But I wouldn’t give it to her yet. She needed to wait and want. I brought my gaze up to her quivering stomach, her naked breasts. Taking a step closer, I blew a teasing breath across her aroused tips. “Ooh.” Her breath left her in a rush, her eyelids flickering closed. Bound for me, I wanted every sense heightened, her vulnerability leaving her breathless. I started

kissing her, softly, lightly, around the base of her breasts, up by the sides. Whisper kisses. She moaned and panted as I brought my hands up, cupping, massaging. “I like watching you respond to me,” I explained to her. “You show me how good it feels.” “Yes,” she moaned. “I want you to think about the night we talked on the phone. You pinched your nipples hard for me.” She panted, twisting against her restraints. The mind was the most powerful aphrodisiac. “This feels nice.” I caressed the swell of her breasts, light and gentle with my fingers. “But you want more.” “I…I don’t know,” she stammered. Abruptly, I removed my hands. “You need to be completely honest with me,” I reprimanded her sternly. She needed to understand the requirements. I demanded total vulnerability. It might scare her, but she needed to trust me. “That’s how this works. You must open up to me. You may not hold back.” “Yes, Liam, I’m sorry,” she apologized, her eyes wide open. “I promise.” “I’ll give you another chance. But you need to be honest. Tell me.” I started caressing her again, sweet and gentle, feathering my touch around her breasts. “You like this.” Kissing her lightly on her soft, quivering mounds, she whined and arched her back. “But you crave more.” “Yes,” she admitted, panting. At the sides of her aching tips, fingers up near her nipples, I stroked her slowly, gently, coaxing the answer out of her. “You need me to make it hurt.” “I need it to hurt,” she pleaded, eyes closed, head turned to the side, surrendering to the truth. “That’s good,” I praised her honesty, blowing on her sensitive tips as she squirmed and moaned. “I could pinch you like you did to yourself.” I wanted her to picture it, crave it, grow so wet wanting it that she stopped caring any more about what was right or wrong, what she should or shouldn’t want. In a whisper, I added low and gravelly, “Or I could bite you with my teeth.” “Yes, oh yes, please.” “See, isn’t that better?” I watched her, panting and writhing. “When you’re honest with me, when you tell me the truth, it feels good, doesn’t it?” “Yes, Liam, it feels so good.” “I want you to feel good, Sophie. I’m going to teach you how to feel so good.” It was tempting to bring my fingers down to her puss*, feel her wet heat, make her cum in a heartbeat. I could picture it on her face, the flush. I’d make her open her eyes when she did it so I could look into them, watch her cum for me. But not yet. I brought my fingers to one of her nipples and gave it a slight tweak. Nothing

hard. She gasped, so sensitive. Then I dipped my mouth down and licked, sucked, kissed as she moaned. My teeth came next, sinking into the tip, my tongue laving her nipple as she tossed her head back and moaned deeply. I did the same to the other side, biting harder, working her up into a fevered pitch. “You want more.” I read her answer all along her body, quivering and glistening with sweat. “Yes, more, please Liam.” No shyness anymore. I liked this Sophie, her lust overcoming her reticence. I’d give her a reward. I decided to use my fingers so I could watch her reaction. The sounds she made were golden, but I loved watching her face, too, as I brought my fingers to her aching, stiff tips and pinched them hard. She screamed out, straining against the bindings, arching her back toward me even as it hurt so she could feel more, be taken even deeper into the sensation. “You like that,” I instructed her, twisting them more, harsh now, demanding her punishment. “Yes, yes, Liam,” she moaned, panting with exertion and need. I took her abused nipple into my mouth, swirling it with my tongue, bathing it in liquid heat. It made her moan again, deeper, as I soothed the pain, making it better for her. Then, with a quick movement, I reached up and untied her from the shower rod. I led her over to the sink and placed her hands, still bound, on the faucet. “Stand here,” I commanded. Right in front of the mirror, she could see her breasts in the reflection, see me standing fully clothed behind her. I reached around and grasped her breast in my hand, massaging it in the mirror. She watched me, fascinated, aroused, her fingers gripping the faucet. “You see how you respond to me?” I asked, pulling lightly on her nipple. She blushed, self-consciousness taking over. That wouldn’t do. Tugging her hair, I forced her head up so she’d see in the reflection. “Watch,” I ordered, her hair still tight in my grip. She gasped, eyes wide and watering slightly, mouth open. “Do you understand?” “Yes,” she panted and I let her hair go. She kept her head where I’d showed her I wanted it. I moved my mouth close to her ear, taking in a slow, deep breath. “Now watch how much you like this.” I moved my hand to her puss*, so slick and warm and inviting I wanted desperately to stay right there for the next week, month, year. But I held back, sliding my thick fingers along her slit just enough to coat them. Then I took them away. She bit her lip, still watching the reflection as I’d told her.

“Keep your eyes on the mirror,” I reminded her. “Watch how much you like it when I do this.” I brought a slick finger to her asshole. Her eyes widened as I did it, her breathing picking up even faster. Her whole body tensed, fighting what she now understood I planned on doing. “I’m in control here, Sophie,” I reminded her. “You’re going to watch yourself in the mirror and see how much you like this.” She whimpered, confused, scared and trembling with arousal. I circled her pink asshole, so tight, so forbidden. Making it slick with her arousal, I slowly pressed, just my index finger. Next time it would be my thumb, but I’d start with index, and just the tip. Slowly in, slowly out. Fascinated by the sight, all my attention fixated on that one point, in her asshole, out again, sliding, slipping, centimeter by centimeter, little by little feeling her body let me in. When I looked up again into the mirror, she was doing as I’d told her, watching me standing behind her and her own flushed face, eyes bright with arousal. “That’s good,” I praised her and her lips parted in a low moan. “You feel how good that is, taking my finger up your ass.” “Yes,” she panted. I shoved my finger up farther, rougher with her now that she’d accepted my whole finger into her asshole. “You’re tight,” I growled, making her open for me. “But your body wants me in.” She moaned her agreement. I brought my other finger around to her breasts, massaging, rubbing, tweaking. “I knew you’d like it,” I groaned as I f*cked her with my finger, in and out of her ass faster now. She grunted under the assault, mouth open, taking and wanting all of it. “Tell me what you like,” I ordered. “I like it,” she admitted. But that wasn’t enough. I demanded more. “Tell me.” I f*cked her faster, my finger slick ramming into her asshole. “What do you like?” “I like your finger up my ass,” she admitted, choking out the words. “Good, I like hearing you admit it.” Primal male satisfaction coursed through me, feeling her submission to my dominance. “Tell me again.” She panted and whined, but didn’t comply. I stopped, finger still, waiting until she followed my orders. “I like you f*cking me with your finger up my ass,” she moaned. “Yes, that’s a good girl. Admit it all to me and you’ll get what you want.” “I love it,” she sobbed, panting and pressing her ass back into my hand, consumed with need. “I love you f*cking my ass.” “Someday I will,” I promised her, thrusting my finger deep up inside of her.

“Someday I’ll f*ck you so hard, Sophie, you’ll come apart you’ll love it so much.” “Yes,” she sobbed. “Do you need to cum now, baby?” I asked, slowing down my finger, feeling her quiver and shake. I didn’t think she could take much more. “Yes, please, Liam. Please, I need to cum.” “Good girl. See, I didn’t even have to ask you twice.” “Please.” “Good girls get what they want.” I brought my finger around to her dripping wet puss*. She’d been pressing it against the cold porcelain rim of the sink, grinding against it for friction, but it hadn’t been enough for release. Plus, she probably already realized she needed me to tell her to cum. Only when I gave her permission would it be so good. I found her warm, slick cl*t and worked it while I finger-f*cked her ass. “Watch yourself in the mirror,” I reminded her. She found the strength to push herself up. Flushed, hair flying wildly around to frame her face, lips parted, she looked into her own reflection. “See how hard I make you cum,” I ordered, pressing hard down on her cl*t. “Now.” She came apart at my command, screaming with pleasure, bucking back into my hand to take my finger all the way into her ass. She used all her strength to keep herself where I’d told her so she could watch herself cum, me standing behind her with my fingers in her puss* and ass. “Liam! Oh God!” she groaned. “Yes,” I soothed her, letting her ride it out on my fingers until she dropped to her elbows on the sink, nearing collapse. “I’ve got you,” I assured her, sliding my finger out of her ass, rubbing my palm at her lower back. Gathering her in my arms, I carried her toward the bed, laying her down on it gently. I untied her wrists, kissing her where her skin bore marks. “Liam,” she called to me, her body still quivering with aftershocks from her intense org*sm. I held her in my arms, smoothing her hair, kissing her forehead. I’d fantasized about her more than any other woman. But the look, sounds and feel of her cumming hard on my hands surpassed any fantasy I’d ever imagined. “I don’t know…I’m not sure I understand…” she murmured. “Shh,” I soothed her again, holding her against my chest. “You don’t have to understand it. I’ve got you.” Her eyes fluttered closed, emotionally and physically exhausted from giving herself to me. I held her, arms circled tight as I felt her body slowly relaxing, growing heavy. I’d drained her, and she was falling asleep.

I held her tight until she drifted completely, sleeping soundly and heavily. And then I left.



I woke up at four o’clock in the afternoon, the sun streaming in through my

window. Liam was gone, though he’d left a note on my pillow: call you tonight. What the hell had happened? Maybe aliens had landed. Or I’d just come out of a coma to discover that my name wasn’t Sophie Douglas. Maybe the world was actually flat, not round. That’s how disoriented I felt, propping myself up on my new bed and looking around the empty room in my new apartment. The morning had started off perfectly normal. Sort of. I had put on a dress, like Liam had said he wanted me to. But I’d excused that as simply what I might have done anyway, regardless. Probably not since the plan was to haul moving boxes around, but it had enough plausibility to let me convince myself. From all my dance years, I’d grown accustomed to pulling on a simple dress, easy on and off over tights and a leotard. It was no big deal. It wasn’t as if I was actually thinking about everything we’d talked about over the phone. He’d shown up and I’d felt nervous but he’d gotten right to work, helping me with boxes and talking about his trip like we were just buddies. I’d almost started to relax. Then everything had shifted, like a switch flipped or a match lit. First we were just standing at the window. Then the electricity between us grew nearly palpable. And then the embarrassing and highly implausible actually happened. Masturbation had always been intensely private for me. It wasn’t something I did unless I was completely alone, no threat of interruption. And it honestly wasn’t something I did that often. My days as a professional dancer were so long and intensely exhausting that most of the time I fell into bed, passing out the second my head hit the pillow. My nights were dark and dreamless, the sleep of the completely exhausted. But that afternoon? That had been different. If someone had asked me in the abstract, would you lift up your dress and touch yourself in front of someone? I

would have said no fast. That wasn’t me. I’d be way too embarrassed. Hell, I didn’t even consider myself that sexual of a person. It had been a problem in my relationships. Not with Liam, of course, but other boyfriends had gotten impatient with me and frustrated, claiming I never wanted to have sex. And they were right, I wasn’t into it with them. So the fact that I’d touched myself for Liam? That was a first. And not only had I done it, I’d loved it. It had turned me on so much to masturbat* in front of him. When he’d ordered me to spread my legs, that had made me throb. Telling me to slowly finger-f*ck myself? Hell, thinking about it made me want to touch myself all over again. Well, I was living on my own and Liam was gone. I walked up over to the door, stark naked, bolting it from the inside just to be sure. Then I returned to bed. I had a lot to process. It might go better if I touched myself while I did it. Back between the sheets, I let myself remember. I’d been frightened when he talked about doing things to me I’d never done before. But I didn’t know how to explain the instinct I had to trust him completely. As if I didn’t even need to know what he wanted to do. Maybe I even liked it more with only him knowing. It made no sense. I was usually a high-anxiety planner, the more information the better. But something about letting go with him nearly drove me crazy it felt so good. Letting him have control made me feel so free. The feel of having my wrists bound, my arms stretched over my head? I sighed and stroked myself, my puss* still dripping wet from earlier. I throbbed, pressing my thighs together, rubbing the slick arousal all over, working my cl*t. Oh, he’d made me feel so good. Who knew it would feel so exhilarating to be bound like that? I’d felt so alive and sensitive, hyper aware of even just the way he looked at me. Standing so close, inspecting every inch of my highly aroused body, I swear I’d felt like I could cum from it. Maybe it was that I’d been repressed for a long time, my desire unexpressed for years. Maybe it was our history together, how well he knew me inspiring the depth of connection. I’d never tried anything like bondage before. If any of my previous boyfriends had suggested it, I would have refused. It would have offended me and turned me off. We didn’t have that kind of relationship. But with Liam? It felt electric, like sparks flew off my body as he tied me up. I felt so completely vulnerable, but cared for and safe at the same time. Feeling his gaze roam my body, knowing I was revealing everything to him, no more secrets, every inch of my naked body had broadcast my need. The more he’d observed me, the higher it stoked my flames. He had me moaning with desire before he even laid a hand on me.

What was interesting, too, was not just how arousing it was when he touched and kissed and sucked on my breasts. That nearly made me pass out it felt so good. But there was more to it. I loved how he’d made me admit what I wanted. I didn’t understand why it felt so good to have him make me confess, force me to tell him what I really needed. Was it finding my own voice? Could that even be possible, as technically he’d tied me up and was coercing me, denying me the pleasure I sought unless I complied? But the way he got into my mind felt almost more intimate than anything else. He seemed to know my cravings, my desires even more than I did and it made me feel so deeply connected to myself and to him. My fingers working fast, I moaned into my pillow remembering how we’d finished. He’d finger-f*cked my ass. Another first. No one had ever touched me there before, not in any way. I’d heard of other people doing it, of course, but I had to admit I’d never even felt slightly curious. Again, now I realized that had to do with the men I was with, not the act itself. Because the second Liam touched me there, it was as if every nerve, every sense was dialed completely into that one spot on my body. I’d never felt anything so intense, that mix of the forbidden, with fear and some pain, but then it began to feel so good. Yielding to him, giving him entrance, the pressure he built up in me, the feeling of him pushing, taking me and forcing me to watch my own arousal. Even before he’d made me cum, I’d already become more aroused than I ever had before. Then came the org*sm, so intense I’d passed out cold for several hours afterward in the middle of the day. Remembering it made me shudder and climax, crying out into my pillow, twisting in the sheets as I called out his name. Liam. What he did to me. But then he’d left. What did any of this mean? What was happening between us? We hadn’t even had a conversation yet about what had happened in the past. There was so much I wanted to tell him, explain to him. What I’d learned about myself, about my family and especially my mother. I’d been young and easily malleable and I was so sorry I’d hurt him. Getting out of bed, I decided to take a shower and go grab something to eat. I could easily spend the rest of the evening dreaming of him, waiting for him to call, over-analyzing everything. But I was also hungry, really hungry, and after years of denying that call I wanted to go get myself a pizza. Back in my apartment with food, I started unpacking, realizing I’d need to buy myself a couple pieces of furniture. A bureau for starters. I’d sold the few pieces I’d owned back in Manhattan, not particularly attached to any of it. I’d never spent much time in any one spot, the dance company’s rehearsal space more my home than any apartment. But now, I should probably at least buy some more hangers. For the time being, I just folded things as best I could and stacked them in the

closet. At least then I knew where all my clothes were and they were out of the way. I’d left a lot of my dance memorabilia behind. My mom kept way more of it than I did, so many framed programs and signed professional photographs. The only one I put up, resting it against a window sill, was a candid black and white of me and my favorite dance partner, Geoffrey. He’d pushed me to do more, express more of my soul, take more risks than anyone else. He’d been heartbroken when I’d told him I was leaving dance. But, interestingly, he’d also understood. “It tears you up,” he’d agreed, hugging me good-bye. Where he fed off the ambition, the competition, the constant search for the next role, I simply couldn’t do it anymore. His latest Instagram post showed him and his partner in Paris. He seemed to be doing all right. The other photo I took out was of me and my sister and brother. We were all just kids, me around four, Ian six and Margot eleven. We were playing on the beach, wind and sand in our hair. I didn’t remember who’d taken the picture. It certainly wasn’t my mother because she’d never want to capture a moment when we all looked like wild animals. I loved it, though, because we all looked really, truly happy. Margot was laughing hard, probably at something Ian had just said or done. He had a mischievous gleam in his eyes, clearly up to no good. And I sat in the middle, between them both, a huge smile on my face as I examined a seashell. Somehow, the moment captured the three of us as kids. Margot was always up for a laugh, wanting to enjoy every second of life to the utmost. Ian pushed boundaries, devilish and full of energy. And I’d just loved being around them, their laughter and even their squabbling keeping me company even as I lost myself in the artistry of nature, each swirl of that seashell mesmerizing me with its perfection. I sighed, recognizing the pull I felt to pick up the phone and call either one of them. I’d love to hear Margot’s voice, even jacked up on something that made her talk so fast I barely understood what she was saying. She was always such a bright spark. Except when she wasn’t. And right now I was sure she was going through hell in rehab, stone cold sober and engaging in rounds of soul-searching, gutwrenching therapy. I just prayed this time it would stick. Maybe she and Eloise could spend the year on Naugatuck, too? Eloise was just about to start kindergarten. It would be so fun to have them around. But I couldn’t call Margot. Rehab had strict guidelines and limited hours for phone time. She still had another three weeks. Maybe I’d wait and see how she was feeling when she got out. I sent Ian a text, for what it was worth. It was the middle of the night in Scotland, but he’d never been big on sleeping.

SOPHIE: I love you.

WHAT MORE WAS there to say, really? I’d tried cajoling him, sympathy, even a bit of yelling. The man was stubborn and deeply withdrawn. I had a feeling what I really should do was get on a plane and show up on his doorstep. Maybe in the fall, though now that I was set on becoming a small business owner I couldn’t exactly jet around. Maybe over the holidays, then. Right when he’d be drinking himself into a deep, dark stupor I’d show up and force him to give me a hug and show me around town. That sounded about right. The thing about life was it was long. I brimmed with restless impatience, wanting resolution to everything in an instant, but that wasn’t how things worked. Life required a crazy balancing act, enjoying what the present could bring but also recognizing that only time would reveal the true nature of what was happening around us. I wasn’t claiming I was any good at achieving that balance. But at 25 I did at least have more awareness and appreciation of complexity. At 18 I’d been certain and resolute, seeing everything in black and white. I’d left Naugatuck thinking I’d never see Liam again. And now here he was, back in my life and giving me the best org*sms I’d ever experienced. Other men I’d been with had treated me like a fine piece of porcelain, tentative as if I might break. Liam did the opposite, and it broke me apart in other ways that felt so good. How long had I been holding on, trying to make everything perfect? Life wasn’t perfect, and it felt good to admit that. Then, around 10 p.m., I got a text from Liam.

LIAM: Sorry, busy night. Will stop by tomorrow morning and look at the flooring.

WHOO. And just like that, my heart sank. My stomach ached. So now our relationship centered around flooring? Great. I forced myself to watch some shows on Netflix to keep my mind occupied. It didn’t work at all, but I finally fell asleep around two. In the morning, feeling better with the start of a new day, I headed to Cuppa Joe for a cup of joe. At some point I’d buy a coffeemaker, but I was enjoying my ritual of heading a few yards down to the local shop. Plus, I was hoping Regina might be starting to become a friend.

“S’up, neighbor?” she bellowed as I entered the shop. It was crowded that morning, but she always managed to greet the locals as they entered. I smiled, waved and took my place in line. Maybe someday I’d have some of the same hustle and bustle as she had in her shop going on in my dance studio. Maybe next summer I’d be up and running and we could do an end-of-season show. Enough families spent the whole summer on Naugatuck. We could do something mid-August before they packed up to return for the school year. And then maybe we could do some sort of a holiday performance, too, taking a couple scenes from the Nutcracker. “What’s on your mind this morning?” Regina asked when I finally got to the counter. “Making plans for the dance studio.” “I am so excited. You’re going to offer classes for adults, too, right?” “Absolutely. Do you dance?” “I have been known to bust a move.” She swayed her hips from side to side as she filled me a cup of coffee. “Are we talking ballet only, or—” “Oh no! I want to do it all, jazz, tap, hip hop.” “OK.” Regina set down my coffee, holding her hands up for emphasis. “You offer hip hop, I’m there.” “Sweet!” I had my first student! “No, I mean it.” She looked at me in all seriousness. “Can we be like the women in Bieber’s “Sorry” video? Can we start with that dance? They are so hot.” “They are so hot,” I agreed, laughing. I could almost picture some of my former ballet instructors cringing as I promised to teach how to twerk. I left Regina to greet her next customer, but she called after me. “When’s a good time to stop by this afternoon? I’ve got something for you.” “Anytime,” I answered, pleased at the start of this new friendship. “OK, see you around two!” I headed back to the shop, humming and sipping. Coffee truly was a miracle drug. I buzzed around, making a couple of calls, confirming a morning appointment with an electrician, and lunch with a member of the historical society and her colorist. Plus Liam said he’d come by that morning to look at the flooring. I couldn’t wait to see him. Until it wasn’t him that showed up. A young guy, probably fresh out of high school, knocked timidly on my front door. “Hey, sorry to bother you.” He didn’t meet my eye, the brim of his cap pulled low, the collar of his shirt up high. The kid had bad acne. I wanted to reassure him that that, too, would pass, but it didn’t seem the type of thing I could mention without adding to his awkwardness. “Liam sent me to take a look at the flooring,”

he explained. Confused and instantly flooded with out-of-proportion feelings of betrayal and abandonment, I led him to the back. He kneeled and examined the planks, then asked if it was all right if he did a couple of hours of work. He’d done this kind of thing with Liam before and knew what he was doing. I checked my phone and, sure enough, there was a text from Liam explaining he’d had to take care of something but he’d sent Rob instead and Rob knew what he was doing. Sure, I told him to have at it as I met with the electrician. Then I hopped upstairs, feeling angrier by the second, to change for lunch. We were meeting at the country club my family belonged to, which of course was the most exclusive and expensive of a whole host of country clubs on the island. That meant dressing up for lunch was like putting on armor for a battle. I was sure I’d run into a whole host of people I knew, people with inquiring minds, finding it so, so cute I’d decided to buy myself a little shop! Then they’d turn away and pull faces at each other, commiserating over the fact I’d lost my marbles. “Is she having a breakdown?” one would whisper. “Drugs, like her sister?” the other would guess. “That family.” They’d both shake their heads in dismay, then head to the bathroom to slip a few Xanax and get drunk on white wine over a lunch with no food. Lunch at the club was worse than I’d expected. Plastic masks of faces surrounded me, people pretending they knew and cared about me, were even supportive of my little adventure. I hated it, all the fakeness, all the gossip. Whitney was there, flying over to hug me like we were best friends. Only she had yet to make it over to the studio to check it out, even when I’d invited her. Twice. “I never see you!” she pouted. “I’m trying to get a dance studio up and running.” “You and your studio.” She gave me a patronizing smile, like I was a child with an adorable attachment to a new toy. “Anyway, tonight, you have to come. Huge party. Black tie. I’ll loan you something to wear if you need it.” She gave me the once-over, clearly implying I needed some help in the clothing department. A lot of help. “I don’t know—” “Do you have other plans?” Her piercing gaze nearly fastened me to the wall like a bug trapped under glass. I did not and, frankly, did not want another date with Netflix trying unsuccessfully to stop thinking about Liam. “Um, no.” “Perfect. I’ll tell Theo you’ll be there.”

Ah, I got the connection. She wanted to see Theo. She knew he’d go to the party if he knew I’d be there. Hence, she wanted me there so she could be by my side and, then, his side. Brilliant. “Maybe,” I hesitated, but she was already off air-kissing another young and fabulous friend. The two ladies I met for lunch spent an hour and forty-five minutes discussing different shades of beige. Apparently there were warm beiges, cool beiges, welcoming beiges, and strong beiges. The colorist had a wheel the size of a large grapefruit that she plunked down in the middle of the table like a centerpiece. I nodded and murmured appropriate sounds—oh, who could choose that! Yes, that’s a beauty—though they honestly all looked the same to me. It would have kept right on going only, thank God, I had Regina meeting me at my place at two. “Sorry, ladies.” I excused myself. They barely skipped a beat, going right back into it with the subtleties and historical context for certain hues. Regina was walking toward my door as I got there, myself. “So good to see you.” I meant every word. “I bring gifts!” She extended her hand, offering me a brown paper bag. “Welcome to the neighborhood. Sorry they’re not wrapped.” “I’m glad you didn’t go to the trouble,” I told her honestly. “Want to come up for a second and see my place?” “Sure.” She followed me up the back stairs. “Just promise you won’t talk to me about beige.” I filled her in on the last couple hours of my life that I’d lost. “People can suck,” she commiserated. “They sometimes do,” I agreed, adding Liam to my mental list. He sucked. I showed her around the apartment, which took all of sixty seconds, but I felt proud. I owned it and it was mine. “Open your gift,” she suggested as we stood in the tiny kitchen. I reached into the bag and took out two coffee mugs, both bearing the Cuppa Joe icon and big whales on the other side since this was, after all, Naugatuck. “I love them!” “Not too original.” She shrugged. “But I hope you’ll use them. And keep coming to my store.” “Of course.” “Well, I have to get back,” she sighed. “I can’t ever get away for long. But we should get a drink some night.” “I’d love to.” I walked her to the front door.

She paused before she left to ask, “How’s Liam?” “He sucks,” I answered bluntly. “Ah. Yes, we should definitely get a drink some time soon.” Since that time was not the present, I decided to head to the party that evening with Whitney. Why the f*ck not? I could do other things, like get in touch with Liam and call him out on his sh*t. But that would require extending myself again, reaching out for him, trying to catch hold of him as he obviously ran away from me. f*ck that. I’d show him I wasn’t someone he could play games with. I wasn’t going to sit around at home pining over him. I was going to head out to a sparkling black tie gala with the rich and famous. So what that I’d rather be in the cab of his truck with him making out? He didn’t know that, and what he didn’t know made me stronger. Of course as soon as I stood, decked out head to toe in a black silk gown— because, yes Whitney, I had attended a black tie party or two while I’d lived in New York and I did have something to wear—my phone dinged with a text.

LIAM: What are you up to tonight?

ANGER RIPPED THROUGH ME. I chucked my phone into my clutch and zipped it up without responding. Screw him. Maybe I’d been a puppet on his string when I was 18, waiting around and revolving my life around him. But I was 25 now and I wanted to be treated well, damn it. I’d put a whole hell of a lot of trust in him yesterday. I’d made myself so vulnerable, placing so much literally and figuratively in his hands. And what had he done in the ensuing 24 hours? Completely disappeared. That was not cool. Whitney stopped by in a car outside my new apartment. She didn’t get out to come see inside. Instead, she peered up from the limo with a look of apprehension on her flawlessly made-up face. “That’s your new place?” She sounded as if she’d just seen an army of co*ckroaches scuttle across the kitchen floor. “Yup.” I settled in next to her, giving her thigh a tap. “You up for drinking tonight?” “Yes!” She switched course instantly to party girl, pressing a button to reveal the fully stocked interior bar. We didn’t even have to wait to get to the party. When we arrived, things already were in full swing at one of the other exclusive clubs on the island. Everyone wore black, white or metallic gowns and the men

looked debonair in tuxes. Theo was right by the entrance as we walked in. He grabbed two bubbly glasses of champagne off a passing waiter’s tray and handed them to us. I drank and talked and even danced a little, if bobbing up and down to lite pop tunes counted as that. And what was even better, I managed to not even check my phone for a whole two hours. Finally, in the bathroom, standing at the sink with a bunch of other women powdering their noses, I checked. Liam had texted me again.

LIAM: Are you home?

I WAS FEELING a bit tipsy and co*cky, too. I kept it brief.



LIAM: Where are you?

SOPHIE: Out at a party

LIAM: With who?

SOPHIE: Why do you care?

LIAM: Are you with Theo?


LIAM: Are you going to let him touch you?

I CONTEMPLATED THROWING the phone across the bathroom or flushing it down the toilet. Infuriating man. Instead, I wrote back.

SOPHIE: If you don’t want to, why do you care who does?

THEN I TURNED my phone off. I was done with this cat and mouse game. I didn’t want to play anymore. Either he was in or he was out. I wasn’t going to let him yank me around until he made up his mind.



W hile Sophie was out who knew where with Theo, I forced myself to go out, too.

A couple of friends were having parties. During the summer that was always the case and it was easy enough to make the rounds. The problem for me lately wasn’t lack of opportunity. It was lack of interest. It took motivation to head out and make casual conversation, at least pretending to listen and engage with women I already knew would never mean much to me at all. I guess I wasn’t being fair. Any one of them might turn out to be the actual love of my life. But I wasn’t feeling it, and that was something I’d learned couldn’t be changed. Disinterest wasn’t my usual problem. Typically, I enjoyed skimming along the surface, keeping things light. People thought of me as an all-around good guy, the kind of buddy you wanted as your wing man, if not the life of the party at least an asset. It felt good to be well-liked, and the female attention never got old. Every now and then, of course, I’d indulge in the kind of dark, sexual play I truly craved. But that was never with people I knew. During my monthly weekends in Boston, I’d head down into the dungeons of a private club, sometimes to watch, sometimes to engage. I’d never had a long-term sub or servant. I’d never felt pulled strongly enough to another woman to try to pursue that. A long-term relationship would get complicated and I liked my simple life. So far, it had been enough. Now, in the span of two weeks, Sophie Douglas had f*cked everything up. What used to satisfy me like a hearty meal now seemed like thin, pathetic gruel. “So you’re a firefighter?” A pretty young thing wearing a bikini top flirted her ass off with me out on my friend’s deck. “That’s right.” I flashed her my hero’s grin, annoyed with myself even as I kept playing the game. How had it all gotten so old so fast? “Ooh, you’re so big and strong. I bet you could just pick me up and carry me

wherever you wanted.” Subtlety was not this woman’s middle name. Usually that was a selling point for me. Not tonight, though. “Hey, man.” I greeted a guy I’d met a few times through another friend. I couldn’t remember his name, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was he’d be happy to meet this bikini-clad flirt. She’d likely be happy to meet him, and off I’d be able to go. The match-up went as easily as expected, and I said my good-byes to the host. “Flying solo tonight?” he asked, noting the lack of a woman by my side. I shrugged. “Guess so.” “All right. But don’t go all Zen monk on me, man. I’m still pissed at you for not throwing your party on the Fourth.” “Naw, nothing’s changed,” I assured him. Driving home I thought about what a lie that was. That had to be one of those statements that instantly meant the opposite. The minute you found yourself insisting that “nothing had changed,” it meant things had changed dramatically and irrevocably. I probably should have made myself stay at the party. Now that I was alone at night driving in my truck, I wanted to stop by Sophie’s apartment. Maybe not knock, but I could drive by and see if she was there or if she was still out with that dipsh*t. I forced myself to head straight home. Stalking was not a hobby I wanted to start picking up. Plus, even I had to admit, I’d basically encouraged her to go out with some other guy tonight. After our intense time together, I’d pretty much bailed on her. If I’d called, stopped by, sent her flowers, something or anything other than lame, jealous texts 24 hours after the fact, she might be with me and in my arms at that moment. Nothing sucked more than recognizing you were creating your own problems. Back at my cottage, I popped a beer and headed out to the deck. The ocean raged below, pounding onto the rocks. Bathed in outdoor lights, I could see the surf crashing against the cragged black surfaces, surging then retreating. Through it all, barnacles clung to the surface, resisting, refusing to move regardless of the brutality of their surroundings. Why had I tried to duck out on Sophie when I knew, deep down, I couldn’t? My heart was like a freaking barnacle, clinging on, refusing to budge even after the rejection, the years of separation. But if I were honest with myself, I hadn’t stepped away because any part of me didn’t want Sophie. It was because when I was completely honest with myself, I thought she’d be better off without me. She needed someone like that Theo, born with millions and multiplying them

into more. He’d take her out on yachts and fly her all over the world and give her access to the best things in life. He’d give her what she was accustomed to, what she might not even realize she’d one day miss. From my experience, wealthy people didn’t see all the invisible comforts and privileges that surrounded them. Sophie might enjoy playing at living in a small, empty apartment over her dance studio. But she wouldn’t want to still be living there ten years from now. At 35 she’d want to be a wife and mother, content in her nest, fussing over the little things that grew to giant importance as a parent. Teething. Naptimes. Getting kids to eat their vegetables. I’d seen it in the guys I worked with, that seemingly overnight metamorphosis from laid-back single dudes who thought about video games, pizza and puss* usually in the reverse order, to stressed-out dads having long conversations with other dads about whether pacifiers promoted independence and self-soothing or encouraged reliance on an external stimuli for comfort, setting children up on a dangerous path that clearly led to hard drugs and prison time. In the abstract, that was everything I wanted. The kids, the family, the wife. Who would be more perfect than Sophie to come home to every day? But in reality, I didn’t know if I was that guy. Look what I’d done to her already? I’d made her touch herself on the phone. Then I’d made her do it again, showing me in person. Then I’d tied her up and finger-f*cked her ass, all while making her tell me she loved it. I wasn’t a good guy. Deep down, I had darkness flowing through my veins. I didn’t know if I’d inherited it from my father, or just grown that way in a household where you never knew when things would get ugly. Whatever the source, I wasn’t Mr. Sunday Barbeque, no matter what people thought of me. And if I kept after Sophie, I’d drag her down with me. I’d rip her apart. I wanted to sink my teeth into her and make her beg for more. She stoked the beast within me, making it rear up and want to strike. From the glimpse I got, she liked pain. She liked me in control. That opened up a whole world and I didn’t know when either of us would come up for air if we went down into it. Or if I’d let her. I’d told her to say stop and I’d stop. Thank God she’d never said it because I’d never felt less able to stop. And we’d barely been doing anything. If I really cared about her—and sitting out alone in the dark with the waves crashing below my feet, I knew I did—I’d walk away.


THE NEXT MORNING I reported for my shift down at the station. The thing about working as a firefighter was a lot of it was down time. You never knew when the alarm would sound, and when it did you had to be ready for anything. But long hours passed every shift with nothing at all happening. That’s why we all got so tight, we all basically lived together at the station house. We all cooked together, too. It was my night to make chili. My secret ingredient was beer. Not that secret, I know, but I didn’t hear anyone complaining. I worked out, watched some TV, made my chili. And I felt like an ass about how I’d handled things with Sophie. It was eating away at me. There had to be some middle ground between tying her up and finger f*cking her and no contact at all. I decided to go for the friend zone.

LIAM: Hope you had a good time last night.

NO RESPONSE. I cursed myself. I was used to dealing in silly flirtations with girls, exchanging texts and banter we both knew meant nothing. I was used to over-thetop come-ons and sexy selfies. But I’d been a dick and Sophie clearly wasn’t interested in my lame attempt at an olive branch.

LIAM: I’m sorry I bailed on you. I’m working tonight. Can I see you tomorrow?

SOPHIE: Not sure. I have Eloise sleeping over tonight and we’ve got plans tomorrow.

LIAM: That’s cool! What are you two going to do?

NO TEXT BACK. Damn it. She was pissed and not going to interact with me on other subjects until I addressed the main one. Being a grown up sucked.

LIAM: How about if I come over late afternoon? Or could I take you out to dinner?

SOPHIE: You can come over around 4.

LIAM: Cool, see you then.

WHY HAD I just asked her out to dinner? What was wrong with me? Well, I’d try for more restraint when I saw her in person. Texting was just too easy. There was something unreal about your fingers flying over the keys, the quick and easy click. In person I’d have to remember this couldn’t go anywhere. I’d apologize and try to make a decent exit, setting her free to be with the type of man she belonged with. I showed up at her house at four o’clock sharp. If I’d been any more eager I would have been wearing a rented prom tux and holding a corsage in my shaking hand. “Hey.” I stepped in when she opened the door, every fiber of my being yearning to wrap her in my arms. “Hey.” She closed the door and walked over into the center of the room, her arms folded across her chest. No hug. I was in the dog house. “How’s the flooring?” I asked. “Fine. Are you here to work on it?” “No, I just wondered if Rob did a good job.” “I have no idea, really. It looks fine.” I walked over and took a look. Rob hadn’t done much, but what he had done looked solid. “Looks good.” She stood there, not giving me anything. “Look, I’m sorry I, ah…” I took off my baseball cap and scratched my hair. Maybe that would stimulate my brain to say the right thing. “You want to go sit down upstairs?” “Nope.” OK, that hadn’t been the right thing to say. She saw right through me anyway. She knew that I knew that the only place to sit upstairs was the bed. “I don’t know what to say, Sophie.” I put the cap back on my head. “I don’t really know…” I exhaled, surprising even myself at my inability to articulate thoughts. “I’m not… And you’re...” I gestured at her lamely, as if that might be enough to communicate the wide gulf that existed and should always exist between us. The problem with looking at her and standing so close was that she looked good enough to eat in a white tank top and short shorts. I looked away, shaking my sorry excuse for a head. “This is confusing,” I summed it up.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “I’m confused, too.” “Can I take you to dinner?” I tried a half smile. Maybe she’d take pity on me. “That depends.” She surveyed me, still cool. “On what?” “On whether you’re planning on running away again. Or if it’s even a possibility that you might.” “I didn’t run away.” My stupid protest hung there, seeming to even make fun of itself. “You did,” she stated evenly. “After all that…” She gestured upstairs. “After that went down, I didn’t hear anything from you.” “Well, I did text you.” I should just stop talking. “Yeah, to tell me you were busy and not coming to help with the flooring. That’s bullsh*t.” “Maybe I’m trying to do the right thing.” I held my hands up in surrender. “And what is the right thing, exactly?” I tugged at the brim of my baseball cap, looking down at the floorboards. Replacing flooring, that was something I could do well. Assessing the damage, taking out the old, putting in the new plumb and true. That I could handle no problem. This thing with Sophie? What the f*ck. I settled on saying the one thing I knew was true. “I don’t want to hurt you.” “Fine.” She put her hands up as if to push me away. “Why don’t you get out then. It’s not a problem.” “Sophie, that’s not what I mean.” “You’re driving me crazy.” Her voice rose, her hands on her hips. “You think you’re the only one?” I grabbed her, wrapping her in my arms, crushing her against my chest as I leaned her into a deep kiss. I wanted to devour her, the taste of her so sweet. Her initial resistance melted into hunger, her hands digging into my shoulders, pulling me closer. The sounds she made deep in her throat, the feel of her curves against my muscles, both of us grew breathless. I stood her up again, settling her on her own two feet. I kept my arm around her waist until I could feel her get steady, her eyes opening fully once again. She shook her head as if trying to clear it of brain fog. Then she took a step away. Even the smallest distance between us felt like too much. I clenched my hands at my sides to stop myself from reaching out again. “See, that?” Her hand trembled as she brought it to her hair, trying to smooth it out from where I’d run my hand through. “That’s confusing.” I nodded in complete agreement. I hadn’t even meant to do it. “Maybe, could we try to just have a normal conversation?”

“A normal conversation?” I repeated, still trying to clear my own head. It was hard standing that close to her. She affected me like a drug. “Like, how have you been for the last seven years?” She threw up her hands in exasperation, starting to pace the room. “What have you been up to? Remember the last time I saw you seven years ago when I was crying so hard I couldn’t talk?” She stopped and faced me. “Or would you rather pretend none of that ever happened?” I exhaled. Women were tough, with all their talking and emotions. Look at Jax, I hadn’t seen him in a couple years and he didn’t give me the third degree when he saw me. Then again, I didn’t lie awake all night thinking about Jax. “Let’s have dinner,” I tried again. “And we’ll have an actual conversation?” “I’ll do my best, Sophie.” She popped upstairs, telling me to wait down there for her like she didn’t trust me. She was right. I’d probably follow her into the bedroom and see how far I could push her, what limits we could discover and pass through. She came down wearing the same tank and shorts but carrying a sweater for later if it got chilly. I liked that she hadn’t changed. I enjoyed those dresses she wore, of course, but really I liked her any old way I could get her. That was just how it was with Sophie. I took her to a casual place with fresh fish and outdoor seating. I knew a guy on the waitstaff and he hooked us up with a good table in the corner, right next to the ocean under little white lights. The sun set behind Sophie and I swear she almost glowed as she talked. Hands-down, no question, she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. “When did you become a firefighter?” she asked, dipping her fried cod into some vinegar. “A couple years ago.” Last she’d known, I’d been on the list. I’d gotten my name on there the day I’d turned 19. The summer we’d spent together I’d already passed the written and physical tests. “I got my EMT certification and did that for a while plus construction and carpentry. Then, when my father died.” I shrugged, pushing around my French fries. “I guess some people would call it bending the rules.” “But they knew you’d be good at it,” she defended me. “And a spot opened up.” “How did he die?” she asked in a more hesitant voice. She was one of a small handful of people who knew he’d had a violent streak. Everyone knew him as a big man and a big drinker, but he’d saved the best for his wife and sons. In my limited experience with women before Sophie, it had been easy to explain away any

bruises, cuts or scars. But Sophie hadn’t bought any of it. She knew me too well, right from the start. I wasn’t clumsy and I wasn’t the type of hotheaded guy who went out to bars and got into fights. I’d told her, one of those nights we’d stayed out together until the sun rose. She’d had the perfect reaction. She’d held and kissed me, not even saying a word for some time, just letting her physical presence comfort my physical wounds. And then she’d told me she loved me. I took a sip of my beer and cleared my throat, trying to also clear the memories swirling around thick and fast in my head. “He had a massive heart attack,” I explained, remembering the call I’d gotten in the middle of the night. “He stood up out of bed, clutched his chest, fell to the ground and that was that. They couldn’t revive him.” I’d been the first responder, a trained EMT. I swear I’d tried with all my might, my mother crying by my side. By the time the ambulance arrived I’d known he was gone for good. “I’m so sorry.” Sophie reached out and touched my hand. My attention riveted to our point of contact. She withdrew as if she’d felt an electric shock. “Thanks. It’s strange with him gone. I still think about how he’s going to react to things, and then remember.” I ate a French fry, sipped my beer. “I hate to say it, but I do think Mom’s better with him gone.” “She’s lucky to have you looking after her.” Affection shone from her eyes. “I’m sure it makes a huge difference to her.” “OK, so I’ve been telling you all about how I became a firefighter. Now you tell me about why you left professional ballet.” With eloquence I could never hope to achieve myself, she told me about the exhausting competition and back-stabbing, the relentless pressure to achieve perfection, the constant sense that even her gut-wrenching best wasn’t quite good enough. “And French fries!” she added with gusto, picking up two, dipping them generously in ketchup. “I couldn’t eat French fries, or ice cream, or pizza. I was hungry all the time.” “How did you dance for hours each day when you were hungry?” I couldn’t stand feeling hungry, never mind working out like that. “You get used to it.” She shook her head. “But I’m done with that. I’m not saying there weren’t some amazing moments, some performances I’ll always remember. My dance partner Geoffrey was amazing. But leaving it was the best decision I’ve ever made.” The statement made me think of another decision she’d made, when she’d told

me she didn’t think it was a good idea for me to come to New York with her after all. Actually, she thought we should break up. She’d raised the subject earlier that day. Maybe it was time to ask her what she thought now, seven years later. “Wazzup, brother!” A hard-partying friend of mine came over with a zealous back slap and high five. “Where you been? No party on the Fourth this year?” He gave me a look like he was deeply disappointed in me. But then he saw Sophie. “And who do we have here?” He reached over, picked up her hand and gave it a kiss. “I have Sophie here with me.” I took her hand out of his and held it in mine, giving him all the universal signs of “back the f*ck off.” “I get it. I get it.” He took a step away, hands up like a cop had told him to freeze. “You two have a good night.” He stumbled off to whatever friends he’d come with. The moment lost, we finished our meals and got ourselves ice creams, chatting about Naugatuck, our families, friends, her studio. It all flowed naturally and easily, as it had once before with Sophie. As I drove her home, I had to ask, “So, how’d I do? Did we have a normal conversation?” She laughed. “I’d say we both did pretty well, considering.” “Considering what?” “You know.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, looking shy. She was such a nice girl, so sweet and thoughtful. What the hell was I doing messing around with her? I should be with some girl I couldn’t hurt doing stuff we’d both forget about soon after. “Thank you for a lovely night,” she said as I pulled up in front of her place. Then she added shyly, “Do you want to come up?” Hell, yeah, I did. But instead I said, “I don’t think I should.” She physically recoiled, hurt by my response. “Why not?” “I’m trying to do what’s right here, Sophie.” The car in park, I turned to her. “I don’t want to hurt you.” “You don’t want to hurt me.” She repeated it woodenly, as if I already had. “Sophie, I’m not the kind of guy you should be with.” “And what kind of guy is that?” It sounded like she was getting pissed. I had to make her understand. I wasn’t trying to blow her off. I was trying to do the right thing. “You know, a nice guy who’s going to treat you right. Be good to you. “Are you planning on being a dick?” I exhaled, rubbing my eyes. This wasn’t going well. “You should be with

someone different. More steady and normal. I’m all extremes.” “Why does everyone always insist on telling me what I need?” Now she sounded even more angry. “You don’t know what I want. Who I really am. I’m only finding out myself.” With that, she leaped over onto my lap, straddling me in the darkness of the truck. She pressed up into my body, grinding against me, grasping my shoulders and biceps. I couldn’t resist when she reached up, ran her fingers through my hair, tugging on it and kissing me with wild abandon. Kissing her back, tongues searching, intertwining, we moved together as she rocked against me, moaning. My hands on her hips, I guided her exactly where I wanted her, where my co*ck straining against the zipper of my jeans could press directly into her molten core. Her eyes rolled back in her head as I brought her down right onto me, the friction so good, again and again. “Do you like riding me, Sophie?” I smiled co*ckily as I asked, watching her paw at me, clutching my chest, her nails digging into my arms as she ground down on my shaft. “Yes,” she moaned, her hair flying wild around her. “Want my co*ck inside you?” She pushed her puss* against it as she groaned again, “Yes.” “Show me your tit*,” I growled, wanting to push her further. Panting, she didn’t even look to see if anyone was walking by. We weren’t parked under a streetlight, but we were right on the edge of downtown on a summer night. I knew people would pass us at any moment. But it didn’t stop her. Maybe it even turned her on. She lifted her shirt, then pulled her bra down. In the shadowy night, her breasts looked soft and delicious. I reached up and took one of her quivering nipples between my fingers. “Someone could walk by right now,” I whispered into her ear as she ground against me. “They might see how much you like it when I do this.” I pinched her nipple between my thumb and fingers, twisting it hard. She opened her mouth, panting, moaning, pushing her puss* against me. “See what I’ll do to you if you’re with me?” I asked, twisting her other nipple, making her bite down on her lip and whimper as she clawed my shoulders. “I won’t stop here. I’ll make you go down on me in my truck,” I warned her. She moaned, moving her hands between her legs. “I’ll push you down and make you take me deep down your throat. I won’t care who sees us.” She worked her puss* as she moved against me, giving her cl*t extra pressure, her eyes closed to pleasure. She was going to cum soon, I could tell. “Don’t you cum,” I warned her, stern. “I did not give you permission.” Her eyes

opened wide. “You don’t cum until I tell you. Put your hands down.” Trembling, with a slight whimper of effort, she did as she was told, moving her hand down to her sides like a good girl. “I get to decide when and how you cum,” I told her, unbuttoning her shorts. She drew in her breath, watching my fingers. “I get to decide how wet you get, how much you want it before I let you release.” Zipper down, I slid my fingers under her panties. She was so wet. Her eyes closed as I found her and started stroking, so smooth and hot. It felt like heaven, but I wanted more. I leaned her back against the steering wheel, tilting her at a better angle. Then I worked my fingers farther back. Her eyes flew open as I pressed my slick thumb against her asshole. “You want to know what I’ll do to you, Sophie?” I pushed my thumb past her tight ring, sliding it up her ass as I played with her cl*t with my other hand. “I’ll f*ck you hard right here.” I shoved my thumb up as I said it and she sucked in her breath. I knew it might hurt a little. I hadn’t worked her into it this time, let her relax. That served as more of a warning. “I’ll make you beg for it,” I told her as I removed my thumb and started using my index finger instead, longer to f*ck her with. “I’ll f*ck you rough. I will make you crave pain.” She moaned, biting her lip, her hands clenching against her sides where I’d told her to leave them. “I want to own you.” I thrust up, deep, hard. She shivered, making soft cries, quaking inside as she struggled not to cum. “I’ll demand everything. Make you surrender completely. I’ll leave nothing untouched. I’ll consume you.” With sudden aggression, I thrust my finger up into her ass, worked her cl*t and growled, “Now you cum.” Then I bit down on her neck. Shuddering, screaming out, she came apart, climaxing on my fingers, bucking against me, taking as much of me in as she could. Mewling, crying out, she sobbed and came in convulsing waves as I bit, then licked, then sucked on her neck. “Liam,” she sighed, collapsing onto my chest, burying her head into the crook of my neck. I held her, stroking her back, giving her time to come down. But then I said what needed to be said. “You need to stay away from me.” She drew herself to sitting, looking at me with disbelief. “Look what I just did to you.” Her neck looked like it had been attacked by an animal. I could see my tooth marks and the red around them. She brought her hand to it, looking dazed. “I’m not good for you.” Her eyes grew cold, like a candle snuffed out. “What are you saying?” “You should head up to your apartment.” I pulled her tank top down and helped

her get off of me and onto the passenger seat. A family walked past with little kids eating ice creams. They’d just missed catching us mid-action. I shook my head, furious at myself for losing control like that. “Liam?” she asked, flat and emotionless. “Yes?” “f*ck off.” She jumped out of my truck, slammed the door behind her and disappeared into her building. I was a bastard, through and through. Pounding my fist against the steering wheel, I cursed myself. The only good that would come out of having just treated her like dirt was the fact that she’d definitely steer clear of me now. If she needed any reminders tomorrow, all she’d need to do was take one look at those bite marks on her neck. You know what a sick f*ck I was? As much as I felt like a true asshole, having used her like that practically in public, part of me still liked the fact that I’d marked her. Deep down, I liked knowing she’d walk around with a reminder of me. Like I owned her. Theo couldn’t miss those tooth marks. That would keep him off her, at least for a couple of days. That was why I needed to stay away. I’d do her harm and I’d like it.



L iam and I didn’t see much of each other over the next week. He still insisted on

working on the flooring, and I suppose I could have tried to stop him. Instead, when he came by, I made myself scarce. We’d manage a few minutes of stilted small talk until I’d find something else I needed to go and do. He sent me a few texts, sticking to logistics like what time he could come by and do some work. I limited myself to emojis like “thumbs up” for OK sounds like a plan. Not much was said, but it felt like we were circling around each other like boxers starting a fight, sizing each other up, working out strategy. Every time I saw him it felt like one of us might swing. But boxing wasn’t exactly the right analogy. The way he looked at me, the heat in his eyes, the power in his body, it was more accurate to say it felt like a shark was circling me. And angry as I still was, I felt a crazy, electric charge around him. Like maybe I was tempted to find out how it felt to get eaten alive. Thank God, Wednesday night Regina came over for dinner. We’d talked about doing something, which I’d assumed meant meeting up for a drink at one of the bars locals frequented. Which then made me think about Liam and whether we’d run into him, maybe him with another woman. Around four in the afternoon she texted me.

REGINA: Do you mind just having an early dinner?

SOPHIE: I knew I liked you. Sounds great – why don’t you come over?



I had my first friend over for dinner at my new apartment. Of

course I’d had people over for dinner before when I was living in New York, but it had never been on my own turf and terms. It had either been a large, messy affair mostly organized by dance roommates, or something slightly stuffy and formal George arranged when one of his friends visited from London or Paris. George had always had dinners catered and pared flights of wine with different courses. The meal was always sumptuous and the conversation sparkling with wit, but I couldn’t say I ever really got to know anyone during one of his parties. It hadn’t been about that. It had been more about showing off, his superlative taste in wine, food, artwork—he’d always just purchased something-or-other—and, of course, ballerinas. I was his live performance piece, his artist in residence. He almost liked it when I was temperamental from fatigue and stress, it fit so well with his conception of what a high-strung prima ballerina should be like. And bolstered his own sense of himself as my patron. What did it say about me that I’d avoided intimacy by staying in a relationship like that for over a year? And that I almost never thought about him now? It seemed as if I’d vanished clean from his brain as well. He hadn’t even tried to get in touch with me. I sighed, tidying up my apartment, enjoying the menial task of making my bed and putting away clean dishes. At least those things I could do cleanly and neatly, gaining satisfaction in my accomplishments when I was done. So far I’d had less success with relationships. “I like what you’ve done with the place!” Regina arrived around five, a bottle of red in her hand. “Pretty swanky, I know.” I laughed as we both took in my latest attempts at furnishing and decorating. “I see you’re very into things that fold.” Regina admired my folding card table and folding plastic chairs set up as a make-shift eating area. “That’s my concept.” “Nice. And who is this up-and-coming artist?” She stepped closer to admire the crayon and colored pencil artwork I had taped up all over the walls. “Eloise, my niece. She’s five years old, not even in kindergarten yet.” “Pure genius.” “I know, right?” Conversation flowed as I boiled some pasta—almost too long but Regina took it off the stove before it turned into limp glue. To say my cooking skills were limited would be generous. But with jarred spaghetti sauce poured on top and large plastic cups of red wine, I had to say I thought the dinner was excellent. Regina told me all about her boyfriend Ed the electrician, how he was a good guy,

steady and reliable, even though he sometimes drove her crazy. “How long have you been together?” I asked, twirling up a forkful of spaghetti. “Two years.” “Do you think you might, you know…?” I tapped my left ring finger. “Maybe.” Regina took a swing of wine. “It’s a big decision. Have you ever gotten close to that with anyone?” “I lived with a guy in New York. But it really never crossed my mind. Is that weird?” “I don’t know if it’s weird.” Regina though about it. “But it does tell you something. If you’d had a future together, it would have been on your mind.” She ate another bite, then asked, “How about with Liam?” I sighed. “Oh, I was crazy about him that summer we were together for sure. But I was only 18.” “I didn’t mean then. I mean now.” “Now?” I remembered how he’d made me cum so hard in his truck that I’d nearly blacked out, then told me to leave for my own good. “It’s complicated. He says he doesn’t want to hurt me.” “Ouch.” Regina made a face like it hurt just to hear the words repeated. “Right?” I agreed. What a painful rejection, the “I don’t want to hurt you.” Like he was being a good guy. But maybe he was. “He says he doesn’t think he can be the right guy for me.” “What do you think?” “I don’t know. I’m all jumbled up.” I made the crazy sign with my finger twirling circles at the side of my head. “Maybe I should have asked how do you feel about him?” “Oh, that’s easy. I feel like I want to jump him.” We both started laughing. “Do it.” She gave me a little shove on my shoulder. “What are you waiting for?” “Oh, I have.” We both laughed harder. “And?” “He still said the same thing.” Our laughter died down. “That man needs to sort his sh*t out,” Regina declared, finishing her cup of wine and pouring both of us more. “And maybe you need to steer clear of that hot mess while he does it.” “I’m trying to.” I shook my head and enjoyed another sip of wine. “I know what you need.” Her eyes lit up. “A distraction. Who else is there you can play with?” I scrunched up my nose, indicating my lack of good alternatives. “I don’t buy that,” Regina dismissed me. “You’re gorgeous. You must have guys lining up after you.”

“Well, there is this one other guy. He’s like Liam’s opposite. He works in the city so he’s only here on weekends.” “What’s his name?” “Theo.” “Are you talking about Theo Bartright?” “Yeah, do you know him?” I didn’t want to make assumptions, but I hadn’t guessed that they’d run in the same circles. From my experience, locals didn’t mix much with the extremely wealthy who came to Naugatuck to play in their clubs and on their yachts. The friendships my brother had formed as a kid, not to mention my romance with Liam, were exceptions to the rule. “Um, yeah.” Regina talked as if I were a dummy. “The 30-year-old bagillionaire? Looks like Jude Law?” “I don’t think he looks like Jude Law. He doesn’t even have blue eyes.” “I heard he owns his own island in the Bahamas.” “Really?” “It’s next to Johnny Depp’s. Girl, go play with him.” “That’s what Liam told me to do.” I set down my fork. “So? What are you waiting for?” I didn’t have a good answer for that question. How many more people did I need telling me to date Theo? Apparently he was quite a catch. No wonder Whitney was going after him so hard. Maybe I should give him more of a chance. I’d been so caught up in Liam I’d barely given him a moment’s thought. Regina excused herself at eight, explaining she had to wake up at four a.m. most days to open the coffee shop. I thanked her profusely for being my very first dinner guest. She gave me a big hug. “I’m so glad you’re doing all this.” She gestured around at the apartment and the studio below. “What an adventure.” “It is,” I agreed. “I’m excited about it, too.” And talking with her about it, a fellow female entrepreneur, I really felt it. The next day I bought myself an armchair at a local store. It couldn’t fold at all. I sat in it that night, enjoying the solid, permanence of it. My phone dinged with a text.

THEO: Would love to see you this weekend.

HMM. Speak of the devil.

SOPHIE: Sure. Want to come see my dance studio?

THEO: I’d love to. And can I take you to dinner?


IT DIDN’T EXACTLY FILL me with butterflies and set my pulse to racing like I felt with Liam, but maybe that was a good thing. Maybe Liam was too extreme, like he’d told me. I tended toward intense emotions, too. Maybe I needed a good, solid 5 on the emotional spectrum to even me out. My phone dinged again and I looked, expecting more from Theo.

LIAM: How was your night?

WHAT, did he have a second sense? Some sort of an alarm system that warned him if another man was moving in?

SOPHIE: Fun. Regina Cooke came over for dinner.

LIAM: Cool, I didn’t know you two were friends.

SOPHIE: New friends. She works two doors down.

LIAM: I’m working tomorrow but can I come do some work Saturday?


I TURNED OFF MY PHONE. I was sick of texting Liam and talking about flooring. My feelings for the man went far deeper than home repair work. It all felt like foreplay only I was beginning to doubt there’d ever be anything more between us. Together, it felt like we clicked on such a real level. Sexually, we obviously erupted in fire, but that just seemed like an extension of the way we connected across the board. He’d been acting hot and cold to me, no doubt, but spending time around him again reminded me what a good guy he was. How hard he worked, as a firefighter, plus a carpenter, plus doing inspections, too. The way he took care of his mom, never making a big deal about it. The violence he’d weathered as a child, but he never felt sorry for himself. Everyone liked Liam, so easy to talk to, such a good sense of humor, helpful and kind. Even as he confused the hell out of me, I loved being around him. But he seemed to think he was a bad person. Was it just the sex? I had to agree, what we did together was new for me. And dark. I never thought I’d like domination and pain. But with him, I was intrigued. And it seemed like lots of people did that kind of stuff. We were two consenting adults. But he seemed to see himself as some kind of monster. Maybe there was more to him than I knew? I tossed and turned in bed that night and the next, wanting resolution of any sort. Even if it meant severing contact with Liam, as painful as it sounded, at least I wouldn’t be in limbo. I thought about him all the time, wanted to talk to him, share things like Eloise’s latest drawing or the new armchair I’d bought. I wanted to see how he was doing, too, and hear about his day. Back as an 18year-old, I’d loved his mom. She’d struck me as the opposite of mine, so warm and welcoming. I’d love to see her again. But if I couldn’t, I couldn’t, and I was starting to feel like I needed to know for sure one way or another. Midafternoon on Saturday Liam came by. He’d spent the morning napping after his shift down at the station. When he showed up at the studio, he had that freshly showered look and smell. I had to practically tie my hands behind my back to stop myself from putting my arms around him. Funny how seeing him seemed to make me think about getting tied up. “How are you, Sophie?” The way he looked at me when he spoke, it nearly turned me to mush. His eyes burned so hot. I felt myself swaying toward him, as if pulled by a magnetic force. “Good,” I managed to answer, forcing myself to turn my back to him and start walking toward the area where he needed to work on the flooring. “I miss you.” I turned around. Had I just heard those words? “What?” “I miss you,” he repeated, more clearly, louder. I could see his hands clench by

his sides as if he, too, were struggling. “I miss you, too,” I admitted quietly. “Listen, I know I may have screwed everything up here. I’ve done everything wrong.” “You’ve done a lot wrong,” I had to admit. “But not everything.” He made it sound like he’d committed a crime. “I’m just trying to be a good guy. I thought that meant staying away from you. Only…” He removed his baseball cap, raking his fingers through his thick brown hair. I wanted to do that, too. “Only it’s like you’re in my blood. I feel like I’m going crazy. I can’t stop thinking about you.” He stepped closer, his eyes yearning, veins pumping along his corded forearms. “I can’t stop thinking about you, either,” I admitted, meeting his gaze with heat of my own. “I want to try, Sophie. I’m not perfect. Far from it. But—” My phone rang in my back pocket, startling me it was so loud. “Sorry,” I apologized, reaching for it. I meant to just turn it off but then I saw it was Theo calling. Theo, whom I remembered was planning on stopping by that afternoon. Maybe I could I reschedule. “Hey.” I turned my back to Liam and walked a few paces away. Theo told me he was about to head over and he’d made reservations at a few restaurants for us that night. “You can tell me what sounds best to you,” he offered. “Oh, that’s nice of you. But maybe not dinner tonight.” I spoke quickly and guiltily, darting a quick glance back to Liam who was watching me like a hawk. “You promised.” Theo sounded genuinely disappointed. “I don’t remember agreeing to dinner tonight,” I answered honestly. “Well, I’ll see what I can talk you into,” he agreed to disagree. “I can be very persuasive. You’ll see.” The call ended and I turned back slowly to Liam. “Who was that?” he asked, an edge to his voice. “Theo.” I didn’t see any point in trying to hide it. Liam had told me to spend time with him, after all. And, damn it, I hadn’t rescheduled his plan to stop by so it looked like he’d be over soon for a visit. “He’s about to head over to see the studio.” “Is that right?” Liam’s eyes glittered, angry and jealous. “Are you a couple now?” I had to roll my eyes at his about-face. “Isn’t that what you told me you wanted?”

“I want you, Sophie. That’s what I was about to tell you. I want you.” He stepped forward, grasping my hand. “Then you’d better show me,” I warned him, thrilled at his words but still hurt by the way he’d been pushing me away. “You belong with me,” he insisted. It’s what I felt, deep in my bones, but this hot after his cold still had me reeling. “Then don’t just say it. Make me feel it.” His eyes darkened. “You want to feel that you belong to me?” “Um…” I hesitated, taken aback by the swift change I could sense in him. He held his body rigid and tense, as if he had energy coursing through him, pumping through his muscles. But the answer was clear, no matter the risk. I responded from my heart, “Yes.” “This is your chance, Sophie,” he warned. “If you want this over, tell me. But if you want to be with me,” his voice darkened and grew lower, more stern and controlled. “Go upstairs. Get naked and wait for me.” “Wait, what?” I asked after him as he walked out of the studio. He didn’t respond. He knew I’d heard him. It wasn’t a question of comprehension. It was a question of compliance. Maybe that was his intention, to test how serious I was when I said I wanted to feel like I belonged with him. But then he’d changed that statement, hadn’t he? He’d made it belonged to him. I shivered, feeling a throb in my core. It didn’t make rational sense, but it connected to something primal within me. It did feel like I belonged to him. I walked up the stairs, more feeling than thinking, and took off my top, my shorts, my bra and panties. Then I lay on the bed, waiting for him, no idea what to expect. He didn’t take long. He opened the door to my apartment, locked it after him, and strode over to me in the bedroom. His gaze locked on me as he saw me sitting, waiting for him. I’d stripped naked as he’d told me to, but then I’d pulled the sheet up over my breasts as I sat and waited. I felt so vulnerable. “Take the sheet down.” He stood at the foot of my bed, waiting. He’d taken off his baseball cap and stood in a thin T-shirt, stretched across his broad shoulders and thick arms. The man was so strong. Moving slowly, I pulled the sheet down, stretching out my legs so I reclined before him, completely naked. “You’re so beautiful, Sophie,” he murmured, looking me over from head to toe. So exposed, I felt how much he loved every inch of what he saw. “I’ve been thinking about you all the time. What I want to do to you. So many things.” I bit my lip as he kneeled at the foot of the bed.

“Come down here.” He patted the bed right before him. Shyly, I scooted down until I was sitting in front of him, inches away. “Lie down,” he told me, “and spread your legs.” His hands guided me on my hips, moving me closer to him, my legs open and stretched down on either side of him. I lay back down, my heart beating fast. He slid his hands, palm-up, underneath my buttocks and brought his face right up close to my puss*. “You know how many times I’ve thought about tasting you?” “No,” I whispered, knowing I’d thought about it around a million times. “I can’t stop thinking about it. Can I taste you, Sophie?” He looked at me so lovingly, so passionately, I just about cried out my answer, “Yes.” He fell on me as soon as the word left my mouth, a long, slow lick to begin then soft, sweet kisses on my inner thighs, making his way slowly up to my throbbing cl*t. He used his hands to part me, tilt me up and he settled in, licking strong and slow, swirling around my cl*t, starting in a rhythm as I began moving my hips. “Liam.” My head fell back against the mattress, hands clutching the bed sheets. No awkward fumbling, no moments of, “um, maybe a little higher?” The man knew exactly what he was doing. He zeroed in on the most sensitive part of me, the spot that made me sing with need, sparking a fire that began licking through my limbs. “So good,” I moaned as he lifted my hips, eating me like I was a rare delicacy. He groaned into my puss*, licking up my arousal, f*cking me with his tongue, then back up to my cl*t making me twist and gasp. But then he stopped. He pulled away, leaving me gaping, writhing and so close to org*sm I could nearly see stars. “Wha—?” I began to shamelessly protest. “You don’t get to cum yet,” he informed me, and I could swear he had the hint of a grin on his face. Damn him. He had gotten me close to org*sm in under five minutes. And it would have been a blisteringly amazing one, I could tell. Panting, frustrated, I watched as he left the room, then returned with something he must have brought back with him before. “I’ve got something for you.” In his hand, he displayed a large, black rubber… thing. I had no idea what it was. “Um, thanks? Is it like a…?” I searched my mind for what possible kitchen appliance he could be presenting me with. I couldn’t see how it could be used. “It’s a butt plug,” he explained, matter of fact. “And you’re going to keep it deep up inside of you while that f*ckwit Theo stops by this studio.” “It’s a what?” I sat up straight, clutching my knees up to my chest. “That’s way

too big for what you just said it is.” “It’s a lot smaller than my co*ck and that’s going up your ass, too, someday soon.” “Hey, so, wait.” I scooted away from him on the bed, nervous as hell but still, yes, I had to admit turned on. No way in hell could I take that huge black thing up inside my ass, but his dominance, the hungry, possessive way he looked down at me? That made me even more wet, and I was already dripping. “Flip over.” He motioned with his finger for me to lie on my front. I bit my lip and looked at the plug. “Do you trust me, Sophie?” He fastened his eyes on mine. “Yes,” I agreed in an instant. He’d been hot and cold with me, but somehow instinctively, the answer with him was yes, always yes. “Then lie on your front.” I did it, turning over, presenting my backside to him. He grabbed a pillow and put it under my hips, propping my ass up for him. “So hot,” he hissed, spreading my butt cheeks. “And so wet.” He dipped his fingers down to my puss*, touching me where I quivered for him and I moaned. He could still make me cum if he wanted. All it would take was a few strokes. “In time.” He pet me softly as if reading my mind, then took my slick arousal smeared across his fingers, and spread it thickly all over my tight asshole. As he penetrated me with just a finger, I fought him, tense. “Let me in, Sophie,” he coaxed, insisting on entry. “Let go.” His fingers trailed over my lower back, feather soft, relaxing me. I exhaled, letting him take over. It did feel good when I stopped trying to fight it, trying to think. If I just relaxed and went limp, let him do what he wanted, it felt so good the way he was touching my puss*, massaging my cl*t, then sliding back up to my asshole and thrusting into it, a little more at a time, moving up to his thumb, then two fingers, opening me up. “That’s it,” he encouraged as I moaned. “Spread your legs for me. Tilt your ass up.” I did it and it felt so good to follow his orders, so nasty, giving him access to such an intimate place. But when he brought the tip of the plug to my asshole I tensed again. I couldn’t help but think of how big it had looked standing up in his palm. With one end tapered, it widened, then ended in a flat circle. “You’re going to take this up your ass for me,” he spoke low and sure, telling me what I was going to do, not asking. He rubbed my cl*t as he spoke, circling it, and my hips started moving along with his rhythm, wanting, needing. “And you’re going to like it.” He started working the plug in with small thrusts, taking my ass as I ground against his finger, forcing it deeper into me. “Ah!” I grasped at the sheets, not sure I could handle feeling so full as he pushed

and pushed and then, got in. I felt the plug slide into place, my tight asshole closing over the blunt end. I gasped for breath, my eyes burning with effort. “Good girl.” He gave me long, soothing strokes along my buttocks, my thighs, my back. “That looks so good in you, Sophie. I’m so glad you took that all up your ass for me.” I sighed under his praise. He made me feel so warm inside. And now that I was getting used to it, it didn’t hurt so much as just exerted pressure. I felt full. And it made me tingle. “Come and sit.” He helped me move, guiding me over to sit across his lap. He was still fully clothed as he held me in his strong arms. “How does that feel?” “Strange,” I whispered, slightly embarrassed. “Is it too much?” He tilted my chin up to look him in the eye. “No,” I answered honestly. I could take it. More than that, I wanted to for him. “Good,” he nodded. “I’m glad. I want it in you the whole time you talk to him. You’ll never forget who you belong to.” “Liam—” “That’s the first phase of your punishment. There’s more to come.” “What?” What more could he do to me? I already had a giant plug shoved up my ass. What next? “Once he leaves, I’m going to give you a spanking.” “What?” I didn’t seem to have an extensive vocabulary at the moment. “Have you ever had one?” “No, of course not.” “I’m going to take my time and give you a good, long spanking because you’ve been so naughty, inviting Theo over. I won’t go too hard on you. This time. But no more Theo. Do you understand?” I nodded slowly, stunned, and then, right on time, I heard the doorbell. Theo had arrived. Quickly, I snapped on my bra, pulled up some panties and slid a random dress over my head. I flew down the stairs, almost forgetting about the plug up my ass. Almost. I gave Theo a brief hug as I welcomed him into the studio. “Wow! So this is your big project!” I could tell he was trying to be nice, but I could also see the studio from his eyes. It looked old and crumbling, in the midst of a massive renovation. “Yes, it’s really coming along.” I persisted in being upbeat, telling him how well things were going even as I could read his thoughts, wondering why in the hell I would be wasting my time with a place like this. Then the plug up my ass started to vibrate.

“Oh!” I leaned against the nearest wall, my hand bracing myself as my eyes half closed. That felt intense, rumbling up deep inside me. And good. Then it stopped. “Are you all right?” Theo asked, concerned, cupping his hand around my elbow. “Hey, how are you?” Liam appeared at my side, extending his hand for Theo to shake. “Hello.” Theo sized him up, then quickly dismissed him. In his old jeans and Tshirt, I could tell Theo determined that Liam wasn’t anyone of consequence. “Are you doing some work for Sophie?” “I am,” Liam agreed, and the damn plug started vibrating again. I bit my lip, closing my eyes and almost stifling a sound deep in my throat. “Do you need a glass of water, Sophie?” Theo asked with concern. “She’s just a little worked up,” Liam explained. The vibrating stopped. I noticed one of his hands in his pocket. The damn man was operating the plug with a remote. He was toying with me and he was loving it. I continued showing Theo around, pointing out architectural features, the crown molding we were going to preserve, stopping every now and then when Liam pressed vibrate. Each time it went off it got me even more aroused, until I felt like I might need to excuse myself and head to the bathroom where I could touch myself and get it over with. Liam seemed to sense it, though, and he’d turn it off right when I could barely take it anymore. “Are you sure you’re OK?” Theo asked as I fanned myself. “You seem hot. Do you have a fever? Let me get you something to drink.” “I’ll take it from here.” Liam stood at my side, holding on to my elbow. “What?” Theo looked at Liam as if he was just registering him as a person, seeing him for the first time. “I’ll make sure she lies down and takes care of herself.” I bit down on a laugh. The man was unbelievable. “I’m all right, Theo, thank you.” I shot Liam a “stay out of this” glance but he gave me a defiant smile in return. “I think I’ve just been working too hard. I need to rest.” “You’re pushing yourself too hard with this studio, Sophie,” Theo chastised me. “You need to take better care of yourself. Or let me do it.” “Thanks. I’ll call you tomorrow.” I walked him toward the door. I needed him to get out of there, fast. He looked at Liam, then me, then Liam as if trying to make sense of things. But I could see it in his eyes, he didn’t really think of Liam as competition. What could a poor working-class schmuck have to offer that he couldn’t buy ten times over for me? It made me like Theo even less. After a few more awkward words exchanged, I finally closed the door after him. “What a nice man,” Liam observed wryly from behind me. “He offered you

water. But me? I’m going to make you even hotter.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me up the stairs. I followed eagerly, desperate for release. He’d played with me mercilessly, first on the bed, then while I tried to carry on conversation. Evil man. “I can’t believe you just did that,” I told him as we got into my apartment. “I warned you about me.” He locked the door behind us and led me back into the bedroom. “I told you I’m not a good guy. You had your chance to walk away. But you didn’t take it. So now you’ll take your punishment.” He sat down in my new armchair like he’d been planning on it since the second he saw it. “Take off your clothes.” I took everything off quick. Nervous as I felt about some of what he’d said— punishment, spanking—I was also so horny I could almost cry. “Now come over here.” He patted his lap. I walked over, but just as I was about to sit on his lap, he shook his head. “Not that way. Stretched out across me, lying on your front.” Oh. So he meant with my ass up in the air. I took a deep breath. Now was my time to back out. I knew he’d never push me to do something I didn’t really want to do. He’d taken me outside my comfort zone before and I’d loved it. But this? “Make up your mind,” he warned me, losing patience. I reached out for the arm of the chair, not sure how to do what he wanted. He took over, moving me up across his lap, positioning me. I felt so tense, holding myself rigid and flat like a piece of wood, but he started caressing and massaging, working my muscles. Sighing, I let myself relax under his touch, his broad, callused hands working magic over my skin. “You did well with your plug,” he praised me, bringing his hands down to caress my buttocks. He moved me again, bringing my hips directly over his groin. I rested my arms and chest on the arm of the chair, feeling surprisingly comfortable there with him. “Does it hurt anymore?” “No.” I’d grown accustomed to it. I felt full, but not painful. “I like seeing it in you.” He brought his hand to the flat end, sticking out of my asshole. Gently he pressed against it, forcing the plug farther into me. Then he released, pressed again, released, starting a rhythmic massage. “Mmm,” I murmured, instantly responding, feeling myself grow wetter. “You liked wearing it for me, didn’t you?” “Yes,” I admitted. Crazy as it sounded, hard as it had been trying to carry on a conversation with Theo, I’d liked having the plug up inside of me. Knowing Liam knew it was there, having him control me like that. “I liked it, too. But we’re moving on to something else now.” Gently, I felt him

grasp and slowly remove the plug. Pressure built for a moment as he pulled, but then it popped out, leaving me feeling strangely empty. “I’m going to take good care of you,” he soothed me, placing it to the side and then running his palms over my back, my thighs. “Now, earlier we talked about how you belong to me.” “I’m not sure—” I started rising up. “Listen now, Sophie. Listen.” He held me, one hand at my hip, the other pressing on my upper back. I relaxed back down again, letting him have control. It felt good to stop the verbal war, the sparring and back and forth, defensive, aggressive, thinking round and round so hard my head hurt. I wanted him to make it stop. “That’s it,” he encouraged me. “Now since you belong to me, I don’t want you spending any more time with Theo.” “But—” I began to protest. “No more time,” he repeated firmly, shifting my position slightly so my ass was displayed more readily to him. “I want you to know I mean it. I’m going to give you a spanking so you can remember who you belong to.” “Liam.” I hesitated, nervous, starting to shiver across his lap even under his gentle touch. “Shh,” he soothed me, rubbing, warming me up with his caress. “Take your punishment, baby. It’s what you need.” Slap, his palm came down lightly on my upturned buttock. My eyes flew open wide, hands grasping at the chair in shock. He’d spanked me, really brought his hand down on my bottom like he’d said he would. His palm came down with another slap, this time on the other cheek. It stung lightly, not bad, a twinge of sensation but not pain. Still quivering, I rested back down again on the arm of the chair, focused only on his hands running lightly over my skin, soothing, gentle. Then another slap, slightly harder, across both cheeks, followed by gentle rubbing along my inner thighs. Smack, his calloused hand came down sharp on the lower part of my ass, close to my puss*. It hurt, but I could feel my cl*t throbbing in response. How would it feel if he spanked me there? How would it feel if he spanked me harder? Whack, he answered my question with a firmer slap, directly across my cheek. “Ow!” I cried out, tense again. I didn’t realize it was going to hurt like that. “Take it, Sophie.” His voice sounded gritty and low, forceful and insistent. Smack, his hand came down again hard across my ass. It stung and tears sprang to my eyes as I gasped. I must have moved away from him, scooting myself down his lap without realizing it. He grabbed me around the hips and shoved me back across

his groin. For a moment, I felt the hard outline of his co*ck, long and erect pressing against his jeans. “Oh,” I moaned, that second of contact jolting me, making me crave more. “I know what you want,” he murmured, forcing my ass up, my back down again. “But I also know what you need.” He brought his hand down again in a hard spank, followed by a gentle rub. I felt so vulnerable and exposed, lying there, anticipating his hand, not knowing when or where it would land. The stinging, searing pain of his hand, his rough palm against my soft skin, was starting to blend and melt into heat throughout my body. I found myself arching my back, offering my ass up to him, wanting more from him, growing almost impatient as he stroked me softly. The smack of his hand made me moan, my eyelids fluttering closed, my puss* starting to drip with arousal. “That’s it,” he praised me, feeling me accept my spanking, knowing I felt now what he knew I would. The loud crack of his hand against my ass blended with my cry of need, the pleasure building faster as the pain faded. “You know why I’m spanking you, don’t you Sophie.” His voice sounded low and authoritative. “I’m spanking you because you’re mine. And I never want you to forget it.” His hand came down low, smacking a bit of my puss* between my thighs. I cried out, feeling the sting right on my cl*t. He drew his finger along my slit, savoring the slickness of my arousal. “You know you’re mine.” “Yes,” I moaned. “Say it to me.” His hand came down in another smack across my cheeks. “I’m yours,” I whispered, feeling it in every fiber of my being. “Again,” he demanded with another whack. “I’m yours,” I cried out, knowing it was true and always would be. He brought his fingers down again to my puss*, massaging me there, finding my cl*t. My sensitivity was so heightened after all the teasing. It wouldn’t take much. I trembled at his touch, my breathing coming in short pants, already feeling the tremors of an org*sm starting to build. “Not yet.” He caught me around the middle and abruptly stood up. Sweeping me up into his strong arms, he carried me over to the bed, kissing me fiercely. I wrapped my hands around his neck, looking up at him dazed. He looked deep into my eyes. “I want you to cum around my co*ck.” “Yes, please,” I groaned, needing that so badly, needing it right then, no time wasted with undressing or more foreplay. He lay me down and I hated the few seconds of separation as he stood and undressed. But to have him next to me, skin

against skin, wrapping ourselves around each other, that made me lose my mind in delight. The smell of him, his heat and muscles, so hard everywhere I touched. “Are you ready for me?” He nuzzled my neck as he parted my thighs with his legs. “Liam.” I wrapped my arms around broad shoulders and spread my thighs as wide as I could. “Please.” He brought the tip of his co*ck to my entrance, leaning down to kiss my mouth as he pushed into me. “Yes.” I dug my nails into his back, wanting him all the way in, wanting him to go fast not slow. With a strong thrust he worked in farther, then more, stretching me to the point of pain. I remembered him as big, the biggest man I’d ever been with by far, but this was a lot to take. “You OK?” He stilled his movements and looked down at me as I lay there, tense. “Yes,” I assured him, willing myself to relax and breathe. I wanted all of him. He started moving again, slowly, letting me adjust. I began moving with him, our bodies picking up a rhythm as he rocked into me. Soon I was meeting every thrust, pushing my hips up to make more friction, pushing against the headboard so he could f*ck me harder. “More?” he asked, hand under my sore ass as he pistoned into me. “More,” I pleaded. He pushed my thigh open, holding it with his palm as he started working faster, harder, thrusting into me so deep all I could do was scream for it, for him, mouth open, eyes half closed. “You feel so f*cking good,” he grit out, sweat forming on his brow, panting as he worked me relentlessly. “Liam, yes.” “I’m not going to last,” he panted, and I could feel it build in him, his thighs tensing, his breathing so rapid. “I can’t, not this first time with you.” “Cum in me, Liam.” I wanted it so badly, hot and pumping inside of me. I wanted to watch his face as he came and memorize every sound he made. “Are you going to cum for me?” He looked down into my eyes. That, alone, got me so close. “Yes.” I pushed against the headboard, opening my hips and wrapping my legs around his to take all of his assault. He f*cked me like an animal, wild, depraved, unable to hold back, grunting and urgently seeking release. “Sophie,” he groaned, so deep inside me. I came apart when I felt him climax, every muscle in him tense as he shot his hot seed into me. The waves of my org*sm crashed over me, leaving me unaware of

anything save pleasure, pure pleasure, washing over me again and again. He landed to my side, heavy and winded, sweating and spent. With a bodywracking moan, I wrapped my arms around him, burrowing my face in his chest. “Amazing,” he murmured, his hands encircling me, pulling me closer. “Never, ever…” I drifted even as I tried to speak, feeling almost as if I were floating, fulfilled and so at peace. Resting on his chest, feeling the rise and fall of his breathing, hearing the pounding of his heart, I’d never felt more connected and in love.



I didn’t spend the night. I should have. After all we did together, the intense

intimacy, I should have held her all night so I could have the gift of waking up with her wrapped in my arms. To see Sophie awaken, her eyes opening to see me, her face softening into a smile to start that day, that would be like magic. But I didn’t stay the night. I didn’t bolt, either, though. We both lazed in bed after we had sex, not saying much. Personally, it was mostly because I felt speechless. The feeling of being inside her? It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, even compared to being with her seven years ago. Back then, everything had been intense, but we’d also been kids. Neither of us had had any idea what we were doing. With off-the-charts chemistry like we had, we didn’t exactly require a lot of technique to enjoy ourselves, but compared to what we’d done last night it looked like bumbling and fumbling. Last night, my head had exploded. OK, both heads. Afterward I couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, I just lay there with her sprawled across my chest realizing this was it. Sophie was my forever. Whether or not we actually ended up together, I’d never find anyone else like her. No matter what happened between us, I’d love her the rest of my life. Once she roused a bit, I led her into the shower. Lathering and massaging her in the warm water, I made sure she’d feel good the next day, too. I’d used her body like a beast, but I tried to make up for it by treating her like a gentleman in the aftermath. After toweling her off, I massaged her with lotion, too, taking extra care with her sore bottom. Seeing it so pink and fresh made me hard all over again, but I restrained myself. She probably couldn’t take much more just then. As I massaged her in bed she drowsed, half asleep, relaxing more and more the longer I rubbed her. “Do you feel good, baby?” I’d asked in a whisper. I’d been hard on her. I’d also seen and felt her org*sm with the power of nuclear fireworks, but I still felt guilty

about what I’d done. Deep down, I knew there was something wrong with my impulse toward violence. A good man wouldn’t get off on hitting a woman, even in consensual arrangements. “Feel so good,” she’d murmured, signing contentedly and nuzzling into her pillow. As she fell asleep, I sat there and realized I hadn’t used a condom. I always used a condom. How had I not used a condom? I’d gotten up, dressed and left her another of my lame notes on her pillow. But this time I really did intend to call and see her the next day. Of course, last time I’d had the best of intentions, too. I shouldn’t leave, but I couldn’t spend the night next to her. I couldn’t explain why other than a crazy restlessness coursing through my body, keeping my eyes propped wide open and awake. I told myself at least part of why I left was for her. I’d wake her up tossing and turning like that. Still, I felt like a dog driving home, like I’d f*cked with her and f*cked her and then snuck out after she fell asleep. I didn’t sleep well at home, either, and at seven a.m. I still had that boundless energy pumping through me. Pulling on shorts, a tee and sneakers, I headed out for a run. I turned right back around after I set foot outside to grab a cap. It was windy and a light drizzle pattered down all around me. I liked all kinds of weather. You had to, to live out on a New England island. Most people thought of Naugatuck in the summer months, because that was when they visited, but year-rounders experienced it all, sleet, slush, snow, hail, ice, all compounded by whatever the ocean made up its mind to do. I smiled, thinking of Jax. I bet he’d grown soft enough out in Cali by now he’d head to the gym on a day like today. Even Chase, the toughest competitive athlete I knew, had lived in California, then Arizona and now Florida since high school. Of the four of us, only Ian and I still lived in tough climates. He’d moved into the home the Douglas family owned in Scotland. Retreated, more like it. He hadn’t said much about it, but the little I’d heard made it sound like a crumbling ancestral castle falling off a cliff into the sea. But maybe I’d seen one too many movies. Either way, the boy needed to haul his ass back where his friends and family could help keep his spirits up instead of secluding himself. But I was one to talk. As my healthy legs took my swiftly across the pavement, I remembered what a lucky bastard I was. The night of the accident it could have been me who got cracked across the back by a flaming mast, trapped there waiting for a rescue. Who knew how I would have taken it, getting so injured at 14 most doctors said I’d never walk again. A few had held out hope, as had Ian, but then somewhere along the line that had all vanished. Sophie had a lot going on. Her brother in all that pain, her sister Margot

obviously off in some sort of a mess, leaving her five-year-old daughter with a nanny for weeks on end. And from what she’d told me, her mother somehow seemed to find her flawlessly beautiful professional ballerina daughter a disappointment. A man like Theo would pamper her so she’d never have to lift a finger again. He’d seemed so appalled at her involvement with all the work going on at her studio. He didn’t even seem all that enthusiastic about her operating a dance studio. Maybe he was right. What did I know about the world of the independently wealthy? I’d been a working schmuck all my life and I always would be. When you didn’t have to work for a living, what were you supposed to do all day, every day? Somehow, I thought Sophie had it right, though. Her brother isolated and depressed, her sister partying her life away, her mother soaked in alcohol and circulating endlessly in high society, was she supposed to follow their lead? The way I saw it she’d found something she felt excited about in a real way and she was pursuing it with passion. She’d have fun doing it, too, sharing something she was so good at with other people. Wasn’t that was life was really about? Passing the farmer’s market, I decided to pick up a bag each of raspberries and strawberries for my mom. She loved them fresh and ripe, and mid-July they were just coming into season. Thankfully, it was under a mile home and I was able to deliver my cargo with minimal damage. “Berries for you, Ma!” I announced, barging in the side door off the main house. “What are you doing out in this rain?” She rounded the corner, looking at me like I was crazy. I guessed somewhere along the line the drizzle had turned into a steady downpour. I’d been moving and so consumed with my thoughts I hadn’t noticed. “I know you like them fresh.” I held up the bags, depositing them gently onto the countertop. I left a large puddle. Realizing I’d tracked in all sorts of mud and water, I started making my way out again. “Sorry I’ve made a mess.” “It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last.” She laughed, looking at my trail of filth. I gave her a smile. “Working today?” She did about three daytime nursing shifts a week at the local hospital. “Tomorrow. Which means maybe I can do something with these berries.” She started eyeing them, filtering through recipes in her head. “OK, have fun.” “Thank you for the berries, honey,” she called after me. “You are going to make someone a great husband one day.” “Thanks. I don’t know about that,” I muttered, not thinking she could hear me.

“I do,” she insisted. I guessed she had heard. Would she still say that if she knew what I’d done to Sophie last night? How her cries of pain, the sound of the slap of my hand, the sight of her skin growing pink had all turned me on? It was one thing to play like that in an anonymous setting. At the club in Boston no one knew my name and I didn’t know theirs. It gave it an element of unreality. But Sophie? I knew her family, was friends with her brother. Ian already didn’t return my calls. He’d probably firebomb my house if he had any idea what I’d done to his sister last night. At home, I showered and got ready to head over to Sophie’s studio again. The phone rang and I answered when I saw it was Chase calling. “What’s up, man?” It had been a few weeks since we’d last spoken. Usually I was pretty good about keeping in touch. Especially when he’d been training for the Olympics, he’d tended to hunker down, but normally I kept things going. Lately, though, I’d had a lot on my mind. “Busy with the rec center.” He and his new wife Emma had opened what sounded like an amazing center down where they lived in Florida. What did you do after you won all kinds of Olympic medals? If you were Chase, you gave back, opening up a swim and recreational center that offered programs to every man, woman and child in the area on a sliding scale. He’d partnered with a deeppocketed investor and a lot of kids and elderly in the neighborhood used the place for free, and from what I’d seen it was a high-end facility. I hadn’t been down to visit yet, though. “When are you going to get your ass down here? I heard you flew out to visit Jax and he’s all the way across the country.” “Word travels fast.” “No Fourth of July party this year?” “I wasn’t feeling it,” I acknowledged. “First time in years you’ve skipped it.” “Yeah.” I’d thrown it five years in a row. “What’s up? You OK?” “Yup.” I thought about leaving it at that. But this was Chase I was talking to. I’d had his back when sh*t had gone down with Emma. I decided to tell him. “Sophie’s back in town.” Chase made a low whistle. He got it instantly. He knew how hard I’d fallen for her the first time around, and then how low I’d sunk afterward. Plus, add her brother into the mix, her mother’s hatred of me, it was a potently f*cked up co*cktail I was drinking.

“Are you seeing each other?” he asked. I could hear a female voice on the other end. His wife must be sitting next to him. “Yes, you can tell Emma we’re officially sort-of seeing each other.” “Officially, sort-of,” Chase repeated to Emma. I heard her ask, “What does that mean?” “She wants to know—” “Yeah, I can hear her,” I cut him off, annoyed more with myself than the two of them. Emma seemed like a sweetheart. Up until now, the two of us had hit it off well, spending some time together when Chase had been in the Olympics, when they’d come to visit last Fourth of July and, of course, their wedding. She’d probably think I was a lowlife if she knew it all. “I don’t know what to say.” I paced around my living room, pent-up energy coursing through my body. “It’s complicated.” “Because of her? Or—” “No, dude, it’s me. I’m probably f*cking everything up.” “Tell him to just tell her how he feels,” Emma said to Chase. They should just put me on speaker phone. “Yeah.” Palm on the back of my neck, I looked out at the ocean. The waves were choppy today, crashing into each other in a white and gray mess. “Worked for me,” Chase added. Leave it to the happily married couple to make it all sound so easy. “OK, thanks guys. I’ve got to go.” “We scared him off,” Chase said to Emma. “Tell him we’re rooting for him!” she replied. “Next time just put me on speaker phone,” I suggested, mildly annoyed but also smiling. I was happy for Chase that he’d found someone he obviously clicked with so hard. And they’d had their own complications along the way but they’d worked it out. So, maybe I’d try their advice. I headed over to the studio, sending Sophie a quick “on my way” text before I hopped in my truck. She was making good progress on the space, far faster than I’d ever imagined. I had to hand it to her, she was a determined little thing when she set her mind to something. She hadn’t been shy, either, about pestering the historical society and keeping it up every day to make sure they saw her side of things. She didn’t have a general contractor managing the renovation project, either. When I’d suggested she look into hiring one, she’d seemed offended. “And miss all the fun?” She’d given me a crazy smile. I liked her even more for wanting to roll up her sleeves and get into it. She was kind and nice but could be tough as hell when she needed to be. She was the kind of person you wanted in your

corner. Man, I couldn’t stop thinking about her, could I? I parked a block away from her studio and walked there, coaching myself in my head. I should talk to her and tell her how I felt. That sounded simple. And I should go easy on her. She had to be sore from last night. Maybe today, just some kissing and cuddling. Maybe I could go down on her. Just the thought of that and I already had a raging erection. But if things escalated—and they shouldn’t I reminded myself—but if they did I needed to put on a goddamn condom. I knew I was clean and she probably was, too, but the last thing we needed was a pregnancy thrown into the mix. We were already complicated enough as it was. Although suddenly the image of Sophie pregnant with my baby and smiling at me nearly stopped me in my tracks. My heart hurt. What the hell was happening? I walked in and it took me all of sixty seconds to have her pressed up against the wall, kissing her like I’d been dying to do it for years instead of having seen her less than 12 hours ago. In my defense, she instigated it, throwing her arms around me and pressing that supple, flexible body of hers all up on me. I was like a panther with fresh meat. I’m not even sure we managed to say hello before we started stripping each other down, Sophie just as eager as me. We did manage to make it into the back room where the flooring was all ripped up. Over in the one corner, I did the honor of tearing off her panties and pushed her against the wall. “Wet already.” I brought my fingers between her legs, sliding them up to touch my version of heaven. Slick and hot, she just about melted at my touch. “You get me so wet,” she murmured, kissing my neck, sucking me there, even getting a little teeth into the game. “Are you sore from last night?” I’d torn into her, back and front. She looked ready to go, pink and flushed and so damn wet, but I wanted to be sure. “Yes.” She brought her hand down to my co*ck, circling the tip with her thumb, taking some precum and rubbing it along my crown. I groaned as she grasped it, stroking and caressing until I grew even larger in her grasp. “But I want more.” In an instant, I grabbed her hands and pinned them hard over her head, holding her at her wrists. “You want to get f*cked?” I asked, cupping her ass with my free hand, positioning myself between her legs. “Yes,” she moaned. Swiftly, I brought my tip to her entrance, so slick and hot, and thrust up inside. I didn’t go slowly. I pushed into her and she gasped, biting her lip. I was sure she was sore, but she’d said she wanted more and that was what I was going to give her. Urgent and intense, I started f*cking her, sliding in and out, nothing but the

sounds of our bodies, the smell of our f*cking. Out of the corner of my eye I realized a mirror captured us. I went hard on her like an animal, shoving her up against the wall as she moaned. Her breasts jiggled with every thrust, her nipples pebbled into hard pink tips. “You want more?” I growled, tilting her ass so I could f*ck her harder, faster. “Oh! Uh!” She couldn’t form words anymore as I slammed into her, our bodies slick and wild, slapping together. “Watch us cum,” I ordered her, turning her head to the side to look into the mirror. She locked onto the image of us f*cking and her gaze darkened, turned on by watching me use her, watching our lust consume us. I brought my thumb to her cl*t and stroked in rhythm with my thrusts, taking her higher, higher until we both climaxed. Nothing felt so good as cumming deep inside Sophie, the feel of her puss* contracting around my co*ck, her cries of release mingling with my low groan. We fit together, she and I, in a tight lock, like we were made for each other. I rested my head against her forehead, letting her arms come down, rubbing her wrists where I’d held her so tight. “I hope that didn’t hurt,” I murmured as my heart rate started to come down. “It did and I liked it.” She gave my neck a kiss. I groaned, pulling out of her, making sure she was settled all right on her feet. “You’re going to kill me, Sophie.” “Or the other way around.” She smiled up at me as she said it, but her insight jabbed at my conscience. I turned from her so she wouldn’t see my guilty reaction. I pulled my clothes back on and started getting busy setting up my tools. Everything that needed to come up in the flooring had been removed. I’d put in new insulation last week. Now it was time to gingerly re-position each floorboard. I could only lightly sand the planks. Reshaping or fitting was a big no-no, so like a puzzle each piece needed to go back where it had lain before. This was the kind of work that made renovations such a headache. But within another week it would be done. I could wipe it down with some mineral spirits, get the baseboards back on and she’d be good to go. Then I remembered. “I didn’t use a condom.” The words came out wooden, filled with regret. “We should have talked about that first.” She put her hand on my arm. “I have an IUD and I’m clean, so on my end…” “Me, too,” I assured her, feeling relief surge through me. “But I’m sorry we didn’t talk first. I always make sure—” She winced and stopped me. “I don’t want to hear about how you are with other

women.” “Sorry.” I hadn’t thought that would make her jealous. Maybe she was feeling some of the crazy emotions I was? We spent the rest of the day together, listening to music while we worked. She was sanding a door that needed to be repainted. She did the work slowly but carefully, paying loving attention to the detail in the wood. I made a lot of progress on the floorboards. We talked and laughed the whole time, enjoying the sound of the rain against the window panes that Sunday afternoon. “I’m thinking pizza,” she suggested around five o’clock. “That sound good?” “Perfect.” That really described the whole day, the sex, the ease of companionship, everything about Sophie. We tipped the poor drowned pizza delivery boy extra for his troubles, and headed up to her little apartment. Each time I saw, it she’d made it more homey. She had a rug in the main room now and a small sofa. “Look at you!” I complimented her, patting the furniture. “Getting all set up.” “I know! I’m so excited.” “Did you ever get settled into a place when you lived in New York? Or did you move around a bunch?” We sat down with pizza and beers and she told me about her years in the city, living on the Upper East Side but really living at the dance company in midtown. It sounded like she’d had a bunch of roommates, plus one live-in boyfriend whose head I’d like to rip off with my bare hands. But I didn’t say it. I took it out on my pizza instead, viciously tearing into a slice. “You don’t know how lucky you are!” she exulted, savoring a chewy, salty bite. “I could never eat this kind of thing! My teachers would all have a fit if they could see me now.” She seemed delighted at the idea. “What would they think?” I couldn’t imagine anyone finding fault in Sophie’s appearance. She barked out a loud laugh. “They’d think I’m fat as a cow!” “No.” Not possible. “Obese,” she insisted, running her hand over her stomach. “Do you feel that way?” She shrugged, tilting her head to the side and considering the question. The fact that she even had to pause to formulate her answer made me angry. “I’m getting used to it. But I’ve had it drilled into me from such an early age, the virtue of staying abnormally thin. You know what professional ballerinas do during lunchtime?” I shook my head; no I did not know.

“They get on the elliptical to burn calories. It’s insane.” “I hope you feel good about your body now.” I moved to touch her, wrap my hand around her waist. “You’re so gorgeous.” “You make me feel gorgeous.” She smiled at me shyly. “I like that.” I kissed her, running my hand through her hair. The thought that she’d spent so many years chasing an unrealistic ideal, torturing and denying herself, that didn’t sit well with me. She needed to enjoy herself. “You know, this pizza’s been delicious.” I kissed her again, reaching a hand down to the swell of her breast, the curve of her hip. “But I’m feeling like I want some dessert.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I don’t think I have anything.” Silly thing, she thought I meant food. “Lie back,” I told her as my hands went to her waistband. “Oh, you mean—!” “Let me show you what I mean.” She lay down and I slid off her panties, then settled in between her legs. I loved the smell of her, the glistening arousal I could already see. She was so sensitive, the second I touched the tip of my tongue to her puss* she gasped, her fingers curling into the sofa cushion. I laughed, enjoying the power of her response, and I started playing with her, giving her a lick right where she needed it, then moving away, kissing, licking, making her wiggle her hips and whimper. “You like that.” I reveled in her arousal, picking my head up to blow gently on her wetness. “Ooh.” She writhed in my hands, her nipples standing out firm against her Tshirt. “Are you going to cum for me?” I asked, knowing the answer but wanting to her it from her lips. “Yes,” she moaned and I dove back in, f*cking her with my tongue as I used my fingers to play with her cl*t. She rose her hips up and pushed against my mouth, impatient. I moved to the side and bit her inner thigh. “You lay down and take it,” I told her. “I decide when you cum.” With a frustrated groan, she went limp again, spreading her thighs wide for me. I took my time, enjoying the way she quivered as I showered light kisses on her thighs, her stomach. She jumped when I finally brought my mouth back to her puss* and pushed my tongue up against her slick cl*t. I grabbed her ass cheeks and held her right where I wanted her, fastening her there so I could feast on her. Licking, sucking, she shuddered around me, gasping and moaning. “Now you cum.” I sucked hard on her cl*t as I plunged two fingers up inside her puss*, deep.

She cried out, grabbing hold of a sofa cushion, sobbing as I sucked and licked every last bit of pleasure out of her. “Liam.” She sounded winded, as if she’d just finished a sprint. I smiled at her, pulling her up to sit on my lap on the couch. She nestled there, her head against my chest. I was rock hard underneath her bottom, but I wasn’t going to push for anything more. I’d already taken her against the wall earlier that day, and I’d loved going down on her. The woman needed to rest. But damn the little minx if she didn’t start moving against me. At first I thought she was squirming to get comfortable. But then she moved her hand down, too, right against my co*ck and there was no mistaking what she was doing. “Can I…?” she started to ask, tentative, shy. “Can I touch you, Liam?” Her fingers at the button of my fly, she looked into my eyes. “You want to touch me?” I wasn’t going to say no. She nodded, adding in a whisper. “I want to go down on you. I want to make you feel good.” With a quick smile, she scrambled down to her knees, still naked from the waist down. “Take your top off.” I watched her, lust already clouding my gaze and she leaned back on her heels and took off her shirt, then her bra. I pulled my jeans and briefs off, then settled back onto the couch with my legs parted enough for her to get in close. “You’re so big,” she marveled, moving to grasp my co*ck with her hands. She ran her fingers along its length, tracing the veins, outlining the smooth edge of my crown. I did have a big co*ck, thick and long, and I didn’t know how much of it she could take down her throat. But I’d enjoy whatever she managed. “Start slow,” I coaxed her. “And relax.” Eager, she scooted closer to the couch, then bent down over my co*ck and darted out her tongue in a slow lick, swirling along my head. “Mmm,” she sighed, bending down again, taking more in. Sucking, swirling, she worked her way down, then up again, exploring my co*ck with her mouth. But then she popped off and looked up at me, sexy through her eyelashes. “Liam?” she asked. “Will you show me how you like it?” “You want me to show you how I like it?” My voice sounded thick and gruff with desire. She nodded. “All right. Just follow my lead.” My co*ck swelled, ready for my eager student. I brought my hand to the back of her head, cupping it there. She looked at me once again, smiling before she brought her sweet mouth down again, hot and wet. I fisted my hand in her hair, gaining purchase so I could guide her in a rhythm, working her down along my co*ck, thrusting into her eager, open mouth.

“Relax, baby,” I instructed, bringing her down on my co*ck, pushing my way down her throat. “Take me in and suck.” “Mmm,” she purred deep in her throat, the vibrations massaging me in her tight, wet heat. I could feel I was hitting the back of her throat and she started to gag. “Relax your throat,” I guided her, pulling out slightly but keeping the rhythm. With my other hand I reached down and found her nipple, toying with it in my fingers. It was taut with arousal. She liked going down on her knees and serving me. “Show me how good you can suck, baby,” I coaxed her, twisting her nipple in my fingers. Eyes open wide, watering with effort she looked up at me and took my co*ck in deep, then deeper than before. I grabbed her hair hard, pushing her down on my dick, watching her work to get me off. She moaned deep in her throat as she struggled to suck me in deep. It felt so good and she looked so hot, on her knees before me, taking me down her throat. I could feel the cum building inside me, my balls tightening. Rougher now, I grabbed her hair and started f*cking her face. “That’s it,” I encouraged her. “Suck it.” She whimpered with need, sucking and slurping as I grew close. “I’m going to cum, Sophie,” I told her and I released her hair, giving her the option of coming off. The thought of cumming down her throat sounded amazing, but she might need to work up to it. I could cum all over her tit* instead and I wouldn’t complain. But she stayed on me, taking me farther down her throat, sucking and moaning on my co*ck to let me know exactly where she wanted it. “Ah, Sophie,” I groaned, leaning back on the sofa, watching intently as she kept up the rhythm, taking me down so deep. Starting to cum, I brought my hand to the back of her head again, holding her there as I thrust down her throat, spurting hot and deep down into her. Her eyes wide, she sucked and groaned, swallowing everything I had to give her. “Yes,” I groaned, cumming and cumming more as she eagerly sucked and licked, swallowing me down. She didn’t stop until I relaxed back onto the couch, limp and spent. Slowly sliding off me, she smiled up with a satisfied expression on her face. “You taste so good.” She rested her head on my thigh. “Holy sh*t, Sophie.” I could barely speak. She’d just given me the best blow j*b of my life. “That turned me on so much,” she confessed, climbing back up to my lap. Bringing my hand to her puss*, she showed me. “See how wet I am?” “From sucking me?” I asked, thrilled at the discovery.

“Yes,” she agreed, eyes closed as she rested her head on my shoulder, moving my fingers against her cl*t. “Liam, I think…” She bucked her hips against my fingers. “I’m close again.” “You liked getting down on your knees for me.” I pressed against her cl*t, feeling how slick she’d become from serving. “You liked it when I grabbed your hair and pushed you down on my co*ck.” Leisurely, I f*cked her with my fingers. “Yes,” she admitted, eyes closed, head resting against my shoulder. “And you liked swallowing my cum.” “Oh yes.” She squirmed against my hand, her breath coming in short little pants. “I want to do it again.” “I’m going to make you go down on me all the time.” “Yes, make me,” she begged. “I want you to make me take you down my throat.” “Oh, you naughty girl.” I caressed her with my voice, working her cl*t. “Yes,” she whined. “Show me how much sucking my co*ck turned you on,” I commanded. She came at my words, arching back, pushing her cl*t into my fingers, coming and shuddering in waves. “I love your co*ck,” she cried out, surrendering to her org*sm. I held her in my arms, this amazing sexual woman I’d somehow gotten lucky enough to stumble across in my life. Twice. “You’re amazing.” I caressed her hair, her face, her back. “I can’t believe you’re back in my life,” she murmured against my chest. “I missed you so much. It hurt so much being away from you.” Wow. I hadn’t realized she’d felt that way, too. All that time I’d been hurting like I had a hole in my chest, she’d been hurting, too? I’d honestly had no idea. In fact, to speed up getting over her, I’d told myself she must not care at all. I let myself mope and sulk at first, but after a while I’d forced myself to picture her out on the town with another man. Or worse, back in an apartment with another man, a man who could offer her much more than I could, making her cum again and again all night. That usually got me out of the house. “I missed you, too.” Understatement of the year. “I’m so sorry I told you not to move to New York with me. That was a huge mistake.” I’d thought about hearing those words lots of times. Now that I’d actually heard them, it almost sounded surreal. And, damn it, almost too much. I wasn’t sure I was ready to have that talk. The one where I admitted I’d never stopped loving her. The time apart had only made me love her more. I’d always love her.

That was a big conversation to have. It would change things forever. It would bind her to me. And as much as I wanted that, craved it, never wanted her apart from me ever again, I needed more time. As much as our connection felt otherworldly it was so intense, I still wasn’t sure we had a future together. I still wasn’t sure she wouldn’t be better off with another man. I stuck around another hour or two. We watched something stupid on TV, cuddling on the couch. Sophie dozed off and I carried her to bed, tucking her in. “Stay.” She pulled at me when I kissed her good night. “I’ve got to be at the station tomorrow morning early,” I explained. “You get some sleep.” And I left, hating myself for doing it. But that guard I’d worked hard to get up wasn’t coming all the way down yet. And it might be for her own good.



E arly the next morning I met with a paint crew and, of course, advisors from the

historical society, to discuss the next step in the renovation process. We were making great progress on the studio. Thanks to Liam’s help, with all his friends so good at what they did and so willing to prioritize my project, we were moving along at practically a reality show clip. For a project a lot of people said I’d been crazy to take on, I felt amazed to look around and see all the electrical and plumbing finished. Liam and his helper Rob had gotten the rough carpentry close to where it needed to be. Then all that was left was plaster patching and painting. I could do a lot more to improve the back room and make it a better changing area, or to the bathroom to make it pretty, but for now I was going to get everything functional and clean and then open up shop. First of all, I didn’t want to push my luck with the historical society. Every move I made required hours of my time to work with them to get them to agree to changes, and that was talking about replacing corroded pipes. I was overjoyed they’d let me go with a light creamcolored paint instead of a dark beige for the walls. It would be bright and clean and neutral—and not historically accurate for the time of the building. But Julia had worked her magic and I got cream. Second, I was too eager to open up the studio and start giving dance lessons. I’d already talked to a woman I knew through the New York Ballet Company who seemed interested in possibly coming on as another teacher on staff. Of course, I’d be teaching round the clock. I couldn’t wait. After months of inactivity, my body was itching like a racehorse kept in the stable too long. I craved movement. What an amazing feeling, to want to dance again. After all those years of pushing myself too hard, it had become a chore, a task I dreaded and associated with pain and ultimately failure. No matter how many lead roles I landed, it never felt like enough. Everything I did garnered criticism from choreographers, sniping from other dancers who wanted to be in my place, or harsh words from dance

critics who earned their living by pointing out flaws. In a few weeks I’d get to open my doors and welcome in people who loved to dance! People of all shapes and sizes and ages, coming to my studio to listen to music and move to it. What could be more joyful than that? I couldn’t wait to celebrate and cultivate that innate love in people. Deep down, I was convinced we were all born with it, the instinct to move our bodies and express ourselves through rhythm and beat. From a tactical point of view, I also bet the historical society would be more open to my remodeling the bathroom and changing room once they saw the studio in action. I already planned to make Julia my chief advisor for senior programming. The woman knew everyone on the island and I could already see her itching to dance again. We could get a couple of senior classes going in whatever she and her friends wanted, ballet, tap, jazz, maybe a modern dance mélange. Or, who knew, maybe they wanted to get jiggy with their grandkids and learn hip hop? I’d be all over that. After ushering the paint crew and assorted advisors out, I got myself a coffee at Cuppa Joe and returned to my studio to survey the project nearing completion. I felt pride, excitement, and a crazy pang of melancholy. I’d liked having the connection with Liam. Ultimately, it had been my project. I owned the place and it was my vision I was executing on, but he’d been my partner in crime, my biggest supporter. Without him, not only would it not be nearly completed in record time, it might not have gotten off the ground at all. And I’d loved spending time with him while we worked. We had such an easy companionship that emerged when we were just spending time together on a mutual project. Without the pressure of trying to sort through what was or wasn’t between us, always with the looming presence of The Past casting a pall over our present-day interactions, we really got along. He didn’t have the sparking or snarky wit of some of my New York friends, or the sophisticated and worldly observations of my ex George, and I had to say I felt relieved by it. We could just hang out, listening to music, talking about a silly video we’d seen on YouTube or a crazy tourist we’d overheard at Cuppa Joes. Around Liam, I relaxed and felt like I could be myself. It was as simple as that. But now here I was nearing the end of the project and even with everything that had gone down between us, past and present, I still felt like with the renovation finished it might also mean seeing much less of him. Our physical connection was off the charts, but he’d never spent the night. He’d never had me over to his place. As intense as it was between us—and I knew that was mutual—he was holding back. It made me feel insecure, and more than that, it made me angry.

The kind of connection we had between us didn’t happen every day. I was only 25 and I knew I had a lot of living still ahead of me, but I also had enough behind me to know that what we felt between us was a rare and unusual gift. Everything that happened during my day, I wanted to tell him about, share with him, see what he thought about it or even just see him laugh over something funny. I wanted to hear about all the little things that went on for him, how his run was, what he ate for breakfast, what minor annoyances and aggravations had pockmarked his morning that I could smooth over by listening and commiserating. We had that kind of click, when you knew you’d found someone you’d never grow tired of. But he wasn’t stepping up to the plate, not completely. He seemed to have retreated from some of the claims he’d made about not being the right guy for me, or how he was too extreme. But maybe he still felt that way deep down. Sometimes it seemed as if he felt like if I really knew him, all of him, I wouldn’t like him anymore. Or at the very least, I’d be happier with someone less complicated who inspired less emotional highs and lows, a solid and steady five on the scale from zero to 10. A Theo Bartright, for example. I could see a life with Theo, rolling out before me so much like my parents’ lives. He’d revolve around his axis of finance and business. I’d manage the society piece of the equation with our club memberships and charities we funded. We’d both look fabulous in photographs the few days a month we’d see each other to make an appearance at functions. We’d pay others to raise our children and send them to the best schools with only the best children from the best families. He’d never hurt me because there’d be nothing there to hurt. I wouldn’t be vulnerable with him. I could always stay a bit detached, keeping my heart whole, separate and safe. It would be a life of ease and privilege, a life many would aspire to. Maybe there was something wrong with me that it didn’t hold appeal? Maybe if I’d never met Liam I would have stepped willingly, even happily into that role because I wouldn’t have known there was any alternative. But now that I knew otherwise, it seemed like sleepwalking through life. I had a couple of hours before Liam was going to come back to finish the flooring, so I headed to my mother’s house to see if I could spend some time with Eloise. When I arrived, I found my sister sitting out on the patio with my mother. “Hello stranger.” My mother rose to give me an air kiss. “How’s the shop?” “Hey!” Margot swooped in for an exuberant hug, full of energy. In a manic swing, I could instantly tell. “I’ve missed you so much!” “How are you feeling?” I asked, wary. I hadn’t been keeping exact count of her days in rehab, but I didn’t think she’d hit her full 60 days. “Amazing! Better than ever!” Everything she said was punctuated by

exclamation points. “Did you…?” Margot gave me a sharp look of warning, guessing what I was about to ask her. But I still had to ask. “Has it been 60 days?” “I didn’t need to stay there for 60 days, Sophie,” she answered with a bright edge to her voice. “Would you like a Bloody Mary?” Mom offered, heading off to the kitchen. “You know Roger makes the best Bloody Marys on the island.” Roger, our butler, had earned his first-name status over decades of service. And the killer Bloody Marys didn’t hurt. “No, thanks,” I answered, in deference to my sister whom I assumed would be abstaining. “Yes, thanks!” she called out at the same time. Noting my look of astonishment, she winked at me. “Virgin, of course. Oh my God, I’m so excited about your shop!” “Um, thank you.” I sat in the chair next to her. “It’s a studio, actually—” “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it!” Passion burned bright in her eyes. She leaned forward, touching my leg. “You can do anything you set your mind to. That’s what I’m planning on doing from now on.” “Good for you.” “I’m going to make a fresh start, Sophie.” She nodded to herself with absolute conviction. “OK.” I wished rather than believed it to be true. I’d try to help her, regardless. But for Eloise’s sake, I hoped her fresh start involved more stability. “Are you thinking of staying here? Or moving somewhere else?” “I haven’t figured out all the details.” She waved away my pesky questions. “Tell me about your love life!” She looked at me expectantly, eagerly, clearly wanting to discuss more fun topics. “Well, I’ve kind of been seeing some of Liam again.” “Liam?” “Yeah, do you remember? The summer I was 18 I dated him.” “Wait, the boy who grew up here?” Her nose wrinkled, as if she didn’t particularly like the memory. “He’s not really a boy anymore. He’s 27.” I tucked my hair behind my ear, already feeling defensive. “What does he do?” Her emphasis on the word “do” seemed to imply she couldn’t imagine the answer would be anything good. “He’s a firefighter and a couple other things, too. He’s been helping me fix up the studio.” “Seriously?” She giggled. “So he’s good with his hands.” She wiggled her

eyebrows. “But tell me, who else?” She swapped at my knee again, ready for me to really launch into the good gossip. “Who else?” “He can’t be the only game in town. What about Theo Bartright? I heard from mom he’s spending a lot of time here on weekends. If you’re not all over that, I am.” “Theo and I have hung out a few times.” “Snap that up. Seriously.” “Yeah.” I glanced at my phone, checking the time. Would it be too soon to leave? I’d only just arrived. “Don’t tell me you’re hung up on the fireman.” I rubbed my forehead, not answering. Her manic energy was exhausting and I did not like where I could see her heading with her big sister advice. “Listen to me.” She leaned forward in her chair, urgent and intent on imparting wisdom. “You don’t know what it’s like out there on your own. You need someone who can take care of you.” “Why do you think I don’t know what it’s like on my own? I’ve been living in the city on my own since I was 18.” “But you were in your little dance bubble.” “Dance bubble?” Now my voice rose up a few notches. Did she somehow think the world I’d been in had been a protective, kind place that sheltered me from the cruel world? “Don’t get defensive. When someone holds a mirror up to our face, we need to take a deep breath and have the courage to take a look at our reflection.” “What’s this ‘we’ and ‘our’?” I didn’t want to sit around and listen to her spout her favorite quotes from group therapy. “All I’m saying is, I’m sure your hunky fireman is hot in bed. But what is Theo, like, a billionaire?” “It’s not all about money, Margot.” She threw back her head and laughed and laughed as if I’d said the funniest thing she’d ever heard. She actually wiped a tear from her eye she laughed so hard. Finally catching her breath, she said, “You’ve always been so cute. But, honey.” She paused for emphasis, again with her hand on my knee. “It’s always about money.” “OK, that’s my cue to go.” I stood up just as my mother came back with Roger by her side carrying a tray with three freshly made Bloody Marys. “Leaving so soon?” my mother asked, without a hint of surprise or disappointment. I didn’t know what she actually felt deep within the mask she

wore at all times. Maybe even she didn’t know anymore. “Sorry, I have to go get some work done on my shop.” After a bit of air-kissing, I headed out feeling like I needed a shower even though I’d taken one only a few of hours ago. And I hadn’t even gotten a chance to see Eloise. I’d have to text her nanny and make plans through her. Liam came over in the late afternoon, and he could tell right away I was out of sorts. “Everything OK?” he asked, following me upstairs to my apartment. Whenever anyone asked that, the answer was invariably, “no.” “Margot’s back early from rehab.” “That’s not usually a good thing.” “Nope, that’s not one of those things it’s good to finish up early.” “How does she seem?” “Manic. She’s convinced that I don’t know anything and can’t make good decisions. So the two of you have that in common.” Whoops, that had come out more acerbic that I’d intended. But I felt frustrated and anger bloomed up in my chest. “Are you angry about something?” He folded his arms across his chest, leveling his gaze at me as we stood in my apartment. “The thing is, I’m not dumb.” “I didn’t say you were.” “No, but, here’s the thing. Did you think I wouldn’t notice that you never spend the night here? That you’ve never had me over to your place?” “Sophie—” “You keep pushing me away.” “I don’t—” “First you, then Margot telling me I should be with Theo.” “She said that?” How dare he look angry about her saying the exact same thing he had. “I’m opening myself up to you in every possible way and you, you just keep holding back. Why?” He met my gaze, direct and defiant. “Because you don’t know me, Sophie.” “But I want to, Liam.” I stepped toward him, trying desperately to bridge the gap between us. All I wanted was to get closer but the words that came out of our mouths seemed to push us further apart. I reached up, hand to his shoulder. “Please, Liam. Don’t keep pulling away from me.” He held his body rigid as if deflecting my touch. “Trust me. You don’t want all of me.”

“I do,” I insisted. None of us were perfect. Why did he see himself as so hideously flawed? “Do you want to see what I want to do to you?” he asked, a dark gleam in his eyes. “Do you really want to know how cruel I can be?” He took a step toward me and despite what I’d just said, I took a step back in retreat. He suddenly seemed so intimidating, full of such fierce and powerful rage. “Do you want to know how much I want to make you suffer?” “Um…” I swallowed, not sure what to do with those questions. “I want to punish you, Sophie.” He walked toward me, backing me into my bedroom step by step. “I want to torture you until you cry and beg and submit completely. Do you want to find out what that’s like? I don’t think you do.” Shaking, I felt so cold. Goose bumps ran up and down my legs and arms. I knew this was it, a turning point, perhaps the final turning point with Liam. I could tell him to leave and he would. The man had a strong will. He’d gone seven years without contacting me and he’d go even longer if he thought it was what I wanted. But then I’d always wonder. I didn’t want that. I wanted all of Liam, even if he warned me against it. Because the truth of it was, even if he didn’t trust himself, I did. I trusted him completely. “I do,” I repeated, meeting his eyes. I can’t say I wasn’t scared, but I was sure. His gaze darkened, not exactly losing the heat of anger but it hardened into something stronger, more determined. “You’re sure?” I nodded. “Then strip.” His voice was so cold, so firm, I stood for a moment almost stunned. “Now,” he commanded. Shivering with anticipation, I did as I was told. I needed to go through with this, needed to see what he meant, even if it ended in both of us going our separate ways. At least I’d do it with full knowledge. “Lie down on the bed on your back and wait for me.” He strode out of the apartment. I didn’t know how long he’d be gone or what he’d do when he got back, but I lay down on the bed and waited. I didn’t pull the sheet up over me, didn’t touch myself though I could feel myself growing wet. I lay there without a stitch of clothing feeling so sensitive, aware of every inch of my body. Maybe that was part of it, to get me in a heightened state, where even the whisper of a touch would make me gasp. He came back after a few more minutes that felt like much longer, and placed a bag on the floor by the bed. Out of it, he withdrew some rope. “I’m going to tie you up, Sophie. You will not be able to move your arms or your

legs. And I’m going to blindfold you. Do you understand?” “Y-yes.” “If at any time you want me to stop simply say stop. I will release you immediately.” I nodded. “That’s not enough, Sophie. Tell me you understand you can tell me to stop if you want.” “I’ll tell you to stop if that’s what I want.” Satisfied, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me roughly up the bed. I watched nervously as he worked, first looping it around the bedpost, then around my wrist. It felt tight but not restricting my circulation. He did the same with my other arm, stretching me out, binding me fast. My chest rose and fell with my panting breath, my nipples already hard with arousal and anticipation. “Spread your legs,” he growled, grabbing onto one ankle and pulling it down toward the bedpost on the other end. I felt so exposed, so vulnerable as he bound first one ankle, then the next. It was one thing to read about it, and I had enjoyed my share of dark romances on my Kindle late at night. But it was another thing entirely to actually be stripped naked and bound, unable to move arms or legs as a large, powerful, fully clothed man prowled around the edge of the bed surveying you with dark, sexual, predatory intent. I found myself squirming, pulling against the restraints, testing to see if I could maybe wiggle out if I wanted to. I couldn’t. “You’re bound tight,” he informed me, enjoying my struggle. “I’m the only one who can set you free, Sophie. You can feel that, can’t you?” His voice had velvety promise, and I knew he meant it in more ways than simply untying my restraints. “Yes,” I whispered. “I’m going to blindfold you now.” He pulled out a strip of cloth and walked over to my head. I watched his every movement nervously, anxious about losing my sense of sight. I’d never done that before. And this was to a man who’d just told me he wanted to torture me until I cried. “This is the last time I’ll remind you. You can say stop.” I nodded, holding his gaze. Then I closed my eyes and let him blindfold me, tying the cloth around me tight. Enclosed in blackness, unable to move, I felt so aware of every noise. The floor planks that creaked as he moved. His breathing, controlled but heavy enough I could hear it as he circled me as if deciding where to start first. “You don’t know how many nights I dreamed of having you like this,” he began speaking, and I felt something light, almost ticklish stroking along the outside of my thigh. “How often I dreamed of having complete control over you.” Whatever he had on me, soft and moving like a feather, caressed my skin, the insides of my thighs, my stomach. I arched my back up into it as he circled my breasts, making

everywhere he touched tingle. “Do you know why I wanted control over you, Sophie?” His voice sounded so aggressive, gritty and deep. Whatever he’d been using, soft and caressing, he removed. “No,” I whispered, frightened by the barely restrained power I could sense in him. “So I could punish you.” In a searing clamp, something came down on my nipple. It felt cold and hard and I cried out in surprise and pain. “What—?” “No, you don’t get to ask questions,” he scolded me. “You’re the student here. I’m the teacher. And you will take your punishment.” Whatever he’d clamped down on my nipple he suddenly removed and I felt sweet, slow licking instead, warm and gentle. It lulled me back to relaxation, making me sigh into his touch. Just as I started to moan, down it came again, some kind of a hard clamp right onto my sensitive nipple. I cried out in pain, but didn’t ask for any explanation this time. Now I knew better. He wasn’t going to tell me anything he didn’t want me to know. He’d keep me guessing to establish complete control over me. But it was hard to give that over to him. This time he kept the clamp on me, pain and pressure shooting through my aroused tip, and at the same time he started loving my other breast, confusing my senses, so gentle on one side, coaxing and sweet, licking and sucking while on the other he enforced brutality. “Uh!” I grunted as he removed the clamp and sensation rushed back into my nipple, a painful flood that melted into wickedly delightful heat as he engulfed it in his hot mouth. But then, before I could start to enjoy it, he forced both of my aching nipples into vicelike clamps, twisting them both until I cried out, writhing on the bed, wondering if that was going to be all it took to make me ask him to stop. I felt close to it. It felt frightening, trapped and at his mercy, but then I felt him brush his fingers along my puss*. Stretched as I was, legs wide apart, I had nowhere to go. Instinct made me want to twist away. This man was hurting me. I should tell him to stop and stay away from me. But I couldn’t move, couldn’t get away from his fingers and they were insistent, starting to stroke, starting to coax a throbbing arousal from my core. He made a low growl in his throat and I felt a response well up from deep within me, sensing how much I was pleasing him, bound there for his pleasure to do with what he wanted. He must like the sight of me, spread and tied, nipples clamped,

and now he could feel my slick arousal coating his fingers as he fingered my puss*. “You’re wet.” He moved his fingers away from my puss*. Then I felt then at my lips, pushing into my mouth. “Taste how wet you are for me.” I licked and sucked his fingers, eager to show him I’d do what he told me, but he removed them as if not even wanting to give me that ounce of control. “I can play with you as long as I want,” he murmured, bringing his fingers back down to my puss*. My breasts throbbed, aching pain in the clamps but it blended with the pleasure he created as he stroked my cl*t, circling, rubbing, slick and rhythmic. Small moans escaped my parted lips, moans of confusion and arousal, the pain and pleasure mingling, making me shake with need. “That’s it,” he encouraged me, sensing my build up to org*sm. “Let yourself go.” I shuddered, letting my resistance fall away, shutting down my brain that protested over the clamps on my nipples, letting the blindfold help me block out everything but the feel of his fingers on my puss*. The rough movements, the sure way he f*cked me, I started gasping, grunting, about to cum. He pulled his fingers away, leaving me with nothing. I cried out in frustration and bewilderment. Had he thought I’d already cum? He got me so close. He chuckled, low and pleased. “You don’t get to cum yet, pet.” He blew across my wet, exposed puss*, making me buck my hips. “Not yet. Not until I decide you can.” When he removed the nipple clamps it hurt so much, for an instant, then pleasure rushed in like a wave as he suckled and laved me, the wet heat of his mouth echoing the wet heat of my puss*. I trembled and panted, never so confused with the warring sensations in my body. And he didn’t stop there. He kept playing with me, tormenting me, down at my puss* with his fingers, his mouth. He knew me so intimately, knew how to set my pulse racing with a simple touch, how to deny me the aching release I needed more and more with each passing minute while still stoking my pleasure. He stopped using clamps, but he brought over something else at first I couldn’t place. It was hard, smooth and felt like an electric shock. I jumped as he brought it to my skin, wondering if he was actually shocking me. “Ow!” I cried out, trying to shrink away but I couldn’t. I was bound and blind, no way to know where he was or what he would touch next. Again, I heard that low chuckle as he enjoyed my discomfort, my disorientation. “Confused, baby?” He brought the object down again onto the tip of my nipple, circling, pushing down on it as I panted and realized—ice. He had a cube of ice, and it almost felt as if it were burning me as my brain couldn’t process hot or cold, just intensity. He brought the ice down to my puss* and started f*cking me with it while

he sucked my cl*t, the hot and cold, pressure and rhythm coaxed me up, up once again. Yet again he denied me. “You’re not anywhere near cumming yet. You’re going to need to suffer a lot more than this to earn it from me.” I whined, not sure how much more I could take. I was already trembling and ready to beg, plead with him to let me cum. The only thing holding me back was I knew it wouldn’t make any difference. It might even delay what I wanted. He’d probably enjoy hearing me beg, and want to drag things out as long as he could to hear more of it. I bit my lip, holding back the words I wanted to scream out, not begging him please, just twisting against my restraints and trying to stay calm, just breathe, keep some semblance of control. But it was hard; he was so good at touching me, coaxing such pleasure out of me and without being able to see I never knew where I’d feel something next. Until suddenly, he untied me. Wrists first, both were free before I really knew what was happening. Ankles next, he flipped me over as he got onto the bed, pulling me onto his lap. Lest I get any ideas, he kept my blindfold on and positioned my palms on either side of my head. “These stay there,” he warned me, his tone harsh. I froze, exactly in the position he’d put me, but then he started to pet me, gently caressing my backside, positioning me right up over his groin. My nipples felt so sore from their torture, even the sheets seemed to scratch them as I lay down chest-first. He pressed me down, his large hand in the center of my back. “This is good.” He caressed my lower back, then tilted my ass up more. “When you’re like this,” he instructed me, caressing my hips, my ass, my lower back, massaging me as he guided me into exactly the position he wanted. “You’re presenting yourself to me. Giving yourself over to me to do whatever I want.” I moaned as he stroked, nudging my legs slightly farther apart. Part of me didn’t want it to feel so damn good, but that part of me was losing the battle fast. It shouldn’t feel so good, to be bound and blindfolded and have him deny me org*sm again and again. But each time I came close and he forced me to not cum it heightened my arousal. As if I craved his control, his denial. He was making me work for it, earn it, and a crazy part of me wanted to see how far he could push me, how much I could do for him. “You remember this?” he asked in a hushed voice, that confusing mix of gentle caress and fierce possession in his voice. Against my ass, I felt a cool, hard surface. Out of instinct, I pulled away, shifting my hips to the side. Smack, his hand came down full and hard across my bottom. I gasped, starting to quiver. “You take what I give you. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I panted, letting him move my hips back into position. The plug had been hard to go in, that I remembered. But I’d done it before. I just needed to breathe and relax and let him work it into me. He worked his hand down on my puss*, covering it in my juices. I felt the smooth hard surface of the butt plug as he rolled it along my slickness. Then he brought the tip to my asshole and held it there, almost teasing me. I held my breath, unable to stop myself from whimpering. I’d never felt more exposed, more vulnerable. I kept my hands pressed down onto the bed exactly as he’d showed me and dared not move my hips. I concentrated on staying still as I felt the plug enter my tight ring, push past my resistance, insistently stretching my hole. “Ah!” I cried out, unable to stop from cringing a little as he kept going, kept pushing the plug into me. “Take it,” he insisted, forcing it into me, making my mouth open in another cry, my eyes water behind my blindfold. “Liam!” I cried out, about to tell him I couldn’t do it, plead with him to go slow but then, suddenly, it was in me, settled full and hard, deep into my ass. I moaned as he started stroking my buttocks. “Good girl,” he praised me, working his hands up and down my inner thighs, up to my puss* where I dripped with need. I groaned with satisfaction under his pleasure. I’d done it for him, as he’d wanted. I’d taken the whole plug up my ass and he liked seeing it there inside me. Now breathing deep, I arched my back and lifted my ass to him the way he’d positioned me, offering myself to him. “You like that, don’t you,” he asked, his voice low and intimate. “Yes,” I cooed, wriggling my ass for him to see. His hand came down hard across my buttocks. The way he struck me, and the force of the spanking blow forced the plug up inside my ass again. “Ooh!” I called out, shocked, feeling it reverberate through my body. “Take your punishment.” He spanked me again, then again, my sensitive flesh stinging and burning under his strikes. He didn’t take it easy on me this time, slowly ramping up his intensity, caressing and soothing me in between strikes. This time it was repeated blows, slaps and smacks, sometimes against my inner thighs, my outer buttocks, the crease right at my upper thighs, even catching the corner of my puss*. Soon the stinging smacks started feeling more and more intimate, the heat building into a burning throb. Each spanking slap made me moan, a deep needy cry from my throat, telling him without question how much I liked his firm hand on me. How much I needed it. “Have you been bad?” he asked me in a low, steely voice.

“Yes,” I admitted from a far off place, speaking from deep within myself. “Did you hurt the one you love?” he asked. “Yes,” I cried, knowing it was true. “I’m so sorry.” Smack, he hit me across my bottom, the pain so, so good. “Bad girl.” He hit me again, this time square across my puss*. I was angling my ass up, arching my low back as much as I could, wanting exactly that. Knowing I couldn’t control it, but desperately needing that intimate contact on my cl*t. When he hit it, it was almost as if sparks flew through my whole body, lighting me up. My fingers clenched into fists, bunching up the sheets as I almost started to cum. “Don’t you cum,” he growled into my ear, not touching me anywhere. “Did I give you permission to cum?” “No,” I sobbed, struggling to hold back, fighting the waves that had almost started to crash over me. “No, I did not,” he barked at me harshly, withdrawing, sitting up, our only contact my puss* over his lap. I started whimpering and sobbing, desperate for more, needing his hands on me again. I didn’t care how pathetic I sounded, how crazy I’d become, I needed one thing and one thing only and he was the only person who could give it to me. “Now if I start again, do you promise to listen and do as I say?” he asked, the harsh taskmaster. “Yes, yes, please,” I begged, needing the contact, craving his skin on my skin. “That’s it,” he praised me, bringing his hand to my sore bottom, stroking me there so lovingly, so intimately. “I know what you need,” he assured me, and I felt the truth of his words deep in my soul. “Do you trust me?” he asked. “Yes,” I panted, meaning it completely. “Good girl,” he said, giving me a caress, then a sharp spank across the fleshiest part of my ass cheek. I cried out, feeling the loud crack of his hand reverberate right to my cl*t. He had me so sensitive, so broken down, I was like a puppet on his string. As he began spanking me again, I had no sense of time or space. I writhed beneath his hand and sweat, crying out, shivering, begging, a wreck with ragged breathing, whimpering incoherent words that always ended with “Please, Please.” “Yes, baby,” he finally said, a hand to my lower back as if to keep me steady. “You’ve earned it. You cum for me now.” He brought his fingers to my cl*t, pressing up and I came apart, white hot blinding ecstasy pouring and shooting over me. I bucked and convulsed, the pressure exploding in me, blanking out my mind as I kept cumming and cumming. He kept pushing for more, pushing and coaxing and my org*sm kept bending out

and folding into another, and another wave, crashing and mixing together as I cried out, losing myself again and then yet again. I felt like I couldn’t stop cumming, as if I were caught in an avalanche and he kept forcing more, then more with his fingers and I was helpless to stop it, I was falling and falling until finally he slipped his fingers down my slit, then brought them to my ass. I had no idea what had happened, what was happening. I barely was aware of him removing the butt plug. He positioned me up on hands and knees and I was like putty in his hands, moving without any resistance, without any sense of what even was being asked of me. But then I felt it when he gathered up my hair and yanked it behind me hard into a ponytail, forcing me up into doggie position. “I’m going to f*ck you now,” he told me, one hand grabbing my hair, the other around my throat. I felt completely controlled, completely owned, my mind blank with only yes as my answer. Yes, I was his. Yes, I needed him inside me, whatever he wanted to do. Yes. From that angle, he thrust his huge co*ck deep inside my puss*. My mouth wide open, panting with effort, I took him in, gasping for breath as he started pounding my sensitive puss*. He moved his hand from my throat and smacked my ass as he thrust into me, sending an intense sting of pain intertwined with pleasure as he rocked against my cl*t. His balls smacking against my ass, he slammed into me again and again like an animal. And then he withdrew. I cried out, now the loss of sensation what hurt me most. It was like an addiction, the intense pain/pleasure, and I needed more, more. I was past rational thought, past my ability to comprehend and into a new realm with only response and feeling. He pushed me past consciousness into a state where I could feel an org*sm bubbling beneath the surface, like a spring waiting to burst out of the ground, but only he could release it. I waited, quivering, needing, submitting. “I’m going to f*ck your ass now,” he told me as he brought his thick co*ck to my asshole. I gasped, panting, in such a heightened state of readiness I couldn’t even begin to form resistance yet still a small part of me felt wary. He was so big. He was so rough. But then he dispelled all thought, pushing past my tight ring with his slick crown. “Ah!” I cried out. It felt like he was ripping into me, burning heat searing my ass. But then he reached down and found my cl*t, rubbing me in rhythm with his thrusts into my ass. “Take my co*ck,” he demanded, pushing his way into my ass, forcing in more with each thrust. And I wanted it. I wanted it so badly I thought of nothing but how

good it would feel once he was fully inside me, possessing me in that most intimate way. Finally, finally he was thrusting his full glorious length, sliding in and out as he rode me. He twisted my hair in his hand, slamming into me, his co*ck in and out of my ass, thick and fast. “That’s it,” he exulted, f*cking me hard and good. “You like it up your ass.” “Yes,” I moaned, crying out, sobbing. “I love it.” “Yes.” He smacked my ass, owning me, making me his in every way. “You needed this,” he told me as he f*cked me so hard. “I’m going to cum in your ass, baby. And when I cum you can, too.” Sobbing, I took every inch of him as he thrust into me deep. Shuddering, I could feel it build and build, the climax in each of us until it finally erupted, him shooting his hot cum deep into my ass as I screamed in pleasure, bucking back into him to take every last drop he had to offer me. Exhausted, overwhelmed, I collapsed sweaty and limp on the bed. I could barely catch my breath. I couldn’t count the number of org*sms I’d had. Where had one ended and another begun? He pulled me onto his chest and I lay there, completely satisfied. I’d needed it to hurt to feel that good. I’d needed to submit entirely to him, to lose myself completely to get myself found. And there, in his arms, that was where I belonged. Where I needed to be for the rest of my days.


WHEN I WOKE up in the middle of the night, he was gone. I propped myself up on my elbows, waiting to hear the sound of him in the bathroom. Or the kitchen. “Hello?” I called out. “Liam?” He had to be there, right? He couldn’t have left. Not after I’d called him on doing exactly that. Not after what he’d just done to me, what we’d just experienced together. But there it was, next to me on the pillow. “Sorry, have to work at the station tomorrow early.” Was he f*cking kidding me? I flopped back onto the bed, barely a bone left in my body. This couldn’t be happening. I refused to believe it. I brought the note back up again and read it. Yup, no doubt about it. Cold, resolute, I made myself a promise. No more Liam. That was it. It didn’t matter that the stars and earth and sun had all moved for me. That he’d taken me further, into places I’d never known. That I felt an intense emotional and sexual

connection with him I doubted I’d ever feel with anyone else. It didn’t matter because he, apparently, did not. The next day, I’d like to say that I did not respond to a text from Liam. But Liam did not text me. It was all silence from the man who ran away. I did, however, respond to a text I got from Whitney inviting me to a toga party that night. Sure. Why not? I wouldn’t see Liam there. And as long as I could get my legs to work, I may as well go out. No time like the present to start my new resolution. I pulled out a white dress, put a gold belt around it and wore some gold sandals. I didn’t care at all. I felt hollow, like Liam had scooped out my insides with a melonballer. So there was nothing to do but start doing things differently. I had to stop opening myself up to him. Something was broken in him that I couldn’t fix. A car with Whitney pulled up to my apartment and I climbed on in. She was all done up with gold snake bracelets twisting up her arms and professionally-done makeup to do her up like Cleopatra. She talked about stuff. I nodded my head as if I were listening. I decided that night was a good one to get drunk. The party was on Theo’s yacht. We arrived and were welcomed into a dark bordello-themed interior with rich curtains and velvet drapes everywhere we looked. No lights on, candles burned from every surface. The mood was decadent, indulgent and dark. I started doing shots the minute I got there. Theo kept supplying them and before long the numbness I sought settled down on my senses like a heavy cloak. All around me, people were hooking up. The party was rapidly turning into an orgy. “Sophie, you’ve been driving me crazy.” Theo got me in a corner and pressed himself against me. I felt nothing. He started kissing me and still I felt nothing. But I did notice something was happening behind us. People were darting around in the darkness, which seemed to get darker. And hotter. “Fire!” someone cried out as I started coughing. Black smoke billowed around us. I fell to my knees, trying to crawl as my drunken mind thought I remembered I should do. Someone stepped on me. People screamed and ran and fell. Black smoke came pumping at me from everywhere, filling my lungs. I sank to the floor, so tired, so numb, and surrendered to the blackness.



O f all the bullsh*t moves I’d ever pulled in my life, ditching her after the night

we’d had was at the top. I couldn’t even pretend I hadn’t done it. She’d called me on it, looking me in the face and naming exactly what I’d been doing. And then I’d tucked my tail between my legs and done the same goddamned thing all over again. It was like a sickness. I was sick in the head. That’s how I felt, anyway, watching her sleep. The sounder she slept, so peaceful, looking like an angel lying there on my chest, the more I felt like the devil. What had I just done to her? What had I introduced her to? Why did I feel compelled to treat her that way? But it wasn’t until she turned to her side that I truly felt like a beast. She rested her arm along her side and first I noticed her wrist. It was red and chafed from where I’d tied her. Damn it. She had sensitive skin. I had a lot of experience with ropes and binds, and I knew I hadn’t done it too tight, but still I’d left a mark. That made me feel so low. The number of times my father had left marks on me, my brother, not to mention my mother. The hot days I’d seen her wearing long sleeves and long pants, sweating in the kitchen. The sunglasses she’d kept on inside the house. The heavy layer of makeup she’d slick on that didn’t quite cover up her bruises. I’d inherited the same sickness, the need to bruise and hurt. And then I’d seen Sophie’s bottom. She looked like she’d been whipped. She had red welts across both her cheeks and the upper region of her thighs. I hadn’t realized I’d hit her so hard. I hadn’t even used any kind of implement. And I’d thought about it. Deep down, I still wanted to. That’s what ultimately made me get up and leave. Seeing the marks I’d made on her, it should have made me guilty. It should have made me hate myself. And both those thoughts crossed my mind. But there was more. I swelled with pride and ownership. I’d marked my woman, branded her. I liked seeing those marks across her, and that’s what made me realize I was a sick bastard. It didn’t matter if she’d enjoyed it. She had, I’d felt her cum with an intense

force multiple times. But if she’d never had me introduce her to that kind of kink, she never would have known what she was missing. She probably would have passed her life content with what she had, free from this darkness. Now that I’d brought her into the sick, twisted world where I played, she could never go back. She’d always know now that she got off on pain, and that was a complicated thing. In the moment, she felt excited and aroused. But how would she feel when she reflected on it? Would she feel good about herself? About me and the sick, twisted, aggressive sh*t I liked to do to her? No, I shouldn’t have done it. Regret flooded me, propelling me up and out the door. I hated myself as I wrote her that lame note. I almost wanted her to wake up as I left it beside her on her pillow. I hated the thought of her waking up and finding it, her heart sinking, hardening as she cursed me. But she didn’t wake up. She kept sleeping so soundly, well f*cked and passed out. I barely slept that night. I went for a long walk, then sat out on the rocks watching the waves. I probably shouldn’t be alone, my thoughts were turning so dark. But I couldn’t stand to be with anyone just then. The thought of being at a loud, crowded party with a bunch of drunk people? Sounded like the last thing I wanted to do. And somehow I knew, even surrounded by noisy distractions, it wouldn’t take my mind off of Sophie. Now I was good and f*cked. It was more clear than ever that I needed to stay away from her. And I was just as certain that she’d gotten into my bloodstream for the rest of my life. I’d never forget her. But I wouldn’t let myself be with her. Maybe I would move out with Jax. My mom was doing all right. It had been over two years since my father passed. She had a steady job, her friends, a big support network. Plus she seemed happier now than I’d ever seen her. Maybe it was time for me to leave. I pictured that girl Katrina he’d tried to set me up with. That was the kind of girl I should be with, someone who knew exactly what I was all about from the get go. I wouldn’t have to worry about hurting her; she wouldn’t hurt me. We’d play and that would be that. The sun rose. I showered and showed up for work a half hour early, letting a guy go home to his family. He had kids he could say good morning to when they woke up. Better him than me off duty. The day crawled by. We responded to a medical emergency down the island, a man having a heart attack. A couple of tourists called us to help with a backyard barbeque gone awry, but by the time we got there they’d put everything out. I would have preferred a busy day. I napped. I worked out. But I kept thinking about Sophie. My phone was silent the whole day. She knew I was working, but still. She could text me.

It didn’t make sense that I wanted to see my phone light up with her name. I should be hoping for radio silence. It would make it easier to disengage. But I still felt like gum that had been scraped off the bottom of a shoe. We were sitting around playing cards around eleven at night when the alarm went off. This sounded like the real deal. Down at the yacht club, some idiot had started a big one. Some of these rich people thought they were invincible. Money didn’t make you any less mortal. We arrived and I could tell it was big when I saw the coast guard, EMTs and police there, too. For Naugatuck, that meant sh*t was going down. We cleared out onlookers as best we could, having them stand back as we located the blaze in one of the mega yachts in the harbor. The thing was enormous, bigger than our fire station, and black smoke was billowing out of its windows, flames licking out the sides. Partygoers streamed out onto the dock, disoriented, coughing, vomiting with smoke inhalation. Who knew how many people were still inside? It wasn’t until I stepped foot in the yacht that it occurred to me—Sophie could be there. These people were around our age. She knew people in this social circle, the country club, private school jet-setters. What if she’d decided to go out with them tonight? I might have pissed her off enough that she’d decided to do exactly that. Charged with adrenaline, I forged ahead into the black smoke, pulling people toward the entrance as best I could. I wore a mask so I could breathe, but nothing could help me see well in a scene like that. There was no telling how much time we had. I’d seen a lot of fires, but the more I saw the more I understood how unpredictable any blaze could be. Just when you thought you’d turned a corner, the wind could pick up, or the flames could lick their way past something combustible and the whole thing could gain a new life. In a situation like we had on our hands, the worst outcome would be the flames hitting the fuel tank. A yacht of that size had to be carrying literally hundreds of gallons. The fire codes for boats were strict because of it, but if the flames got big and hot enough, no fire-retardant materials could stop them. Other guys were working on dousing the flames. Another guy in my department, Tim, and I fixed on rescue. Panic had clearly set in, with guests pushing and fighting their way to the exits. Most had already gotten out, but the floor was littered with shoes, purses and jackets. Through the smoke I could see that a few stragglers remained in various states of disorientation or consciousness. Tim and I hoisted up the first person found, locking our hands under his armpits and ankles and carrying him as carefully as we could toward the entrance where two other members of our department waited to assist. I found another woman huddled in

the corner, conscious but in shock. She started kicking and screaming, but Tim and I managed to pick her up and get her to the exit crew. We needed to get down into the belly of the beast before it was too late. Of course I didn’t know yet what had started the blaze, but I could tell the source was down below. If anyone was badly injured, that was where I was likely to find them. I motioned to Tim and he nodded, agreeing that was where we needed to head. Venturing down the stairs, the heat grew worse, the smoke thicker. Trained as I was for situations such as these, it still took effort to tamp down the natural human instinct for self-preservation. Everything about the context kicked my instinct into flight. But that wasn’t what firefighters did. They stayed and fought. The smoke was so thick, the temperature in the room so hot, I knew we didn’t have much time. But neither did any survivors still trapped down there, and they weren’t wearing any protective gear. I stumbled through the murky haze, lurching through, searching the perimeters with Tim following behind me. It went slower than I would have liked, but it always did if you were trying to be thorough. So far we hadn’t found anyone, nor had we seen any evidence of structural collapse, the type of failure that could trap people. But we still had to look. Someone might have gotten trampled, or hurt themselves in a panicked fall. And I was starting to have a sinking feeling that I might know that someone, because I had a hunch whose yacht it was. His name had come up just yesterday as the man Sophie should be with after all. What if it was Theo’s yacht? And what if she had decided to follow through on that advice and attend his party? When I saw a glimpse of blonde hair through the smoke I almost thought I’d hallucinated, my worst nightmare come to life. I fought my way forward, stumbling over a table, and lying there on the floor I found a limp, nonresponsive body. No coughing, no choking, she lay face down. I didn’t need to see a face to know who it was. Adrenaline spiked through me as I scooped her up and flew with her up the stairs, moving so fast Tim didn’t even have a chance to help. This one I didn’t pass off at the yacht’s exit. I carried her myself, running all the way to the ambulances waiting at the entrance to the dock. EMTs helped me lay her on a waiting stretcher, the team working fast to get an oxygen mask around her smoke-stained face and take her vitals. Only when she was strapped in and getting loaded into the ambulance did I allow myself to take a full look at her face. Somehow I’d known the second I’d seen a glimpse of her hair, but I hadn’t wanted full confirmation until I had her with those who could help. But now I could clearly see, it was definitely Sophie I’d found alone down near the heart of the blaze. And it didn’t look like she was breathing at all. A paramedic leaned over her with a stethoscope to her chest, two fingers at her

throat. I didn’t breathe at all, just stood there, stock still for what felt like an eternity. But finally he looked up at me and nodded. “Breathing. Erratic pulse. We have to get her in.” “Thank God.” I wanted to rush in there with her, hold her hand, see to her care myself but I couldn’t leave, not in the middle of the worst fire we’d seen all season. There might be more trapped in there just as bad off as her or worse and I had to do my duty. But before I returned to the scene, I found an EMT I knew and made him promise me to call me the second he had any news on Sophie. I didn’t even have time to kiss her before they drove off with her, sirens blaring and lights flashing. I took another minute to text my mother. She’d be asleep, but she’d know some people at the one hospital in town where she worked who weren’t.

LIAM: Sophie Douglas is in the hospital. Can you get me news?

I KNEW I didn’t need to explain anything else. She’d remember Sophie, and she’d know someone on duty. I’d done all I could. Now I needed to help others. The scene was a nightmare, with limping, crying partygoers looking like zombies with torn clothes and blackened and singed skin. In the middle of it all, Theo Bartright stood fighting with yacht club management. “I demand to know who’s responsible! This is a mess!” He was yelling so loudly cords were standing out on his neck. Spittle was forming at the sides of his mouth. Mask off, I stepped right up into his face. “Did you know Sophie was still in there?” I yelled. “What?” He looked scared for a moment, a little boy’s fear scuttling across his puffed up face. He masked it quick, but it was too late. I’d seen it. “You left her in there, didn’t you?” I accused him, low and certain. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He tried to dismiss me. “Go do your job. My yacht’s destroyed.” He pointed at his monstrosity. The fire had been extinguished, but smoke still pouring out of the windows. “You coward,” I spat out, looking him straight in the eye. He knew I was right, too. He tried to hold my gaze, but he couldn’t. He looked down, then started in on the club staff again, bossing the poor schmuck around to try to make himself feel better. I hoped his conscience never let him sleep through a night in his life again. The night wore on, helping the injured make their way to medical professionals, dousing the area thoroughly to ensure nothing sprang once again to life. Given the size of the fire and thickness of the smoke, we were lucky we didn’t have any

fatalities. Who knew what was happening over at the hospital, though. Finally, our chief pulled me aside. “Do you know that woman you carried out earlier?” “Yes.” “Have you heard how she’d doing?” “No.” My phone had been infuriatingly silent. Other than a response text from my mom, “Sorry to hear that. I’ll ask,” I’d gotten nothing. I knew my guy would call me with any news, so I knew I could be glad I hadn’t gotten the worst call imaginable. But he hadn’t called me to tell me she was all clear and set to get discharged in a couple hours, either. “Go check on her.” The chief pushed me toward the parking lot. “Are you sure?” I looked around me. There was still a lot to do and my shift wasn’t officially over for four more hours. But the police were taking over the scene now, trying to do the post-mortem and discover what, exactly, had gone so hellishly wrong. I caught a ride over to the hospital with a guy on staff at the yacht club. He’d been up all night helping guests get home, or taking the uninjured over to the hospital. Normally, I would have made conversation, asking how he was doing, commenting on what a horrible night it had been. But I fell silent the whole time, looking out the window, the horror of what I’d seen stilling my tongue. Finding Sophie lying there, lifeless in the smoke had been the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life. I didn’t know what I’d do if she wasn’t all right. I’d never forgive myself. I’d been responsible for her being there. If I’d come through for her, loved her the way she deserved to be loved, she never would have been there to begin with. She didn’t like those people, that crowd. She’d taken bold and difficult steps to distance herself from that life. And she’d taken the risk to share herself with me, instead. And what had I done? I’d taken advantage and then pushed her away. I’d basically shoved her into Theo’s waiting arms, forced her away from me and into… I closed my eyes, trying to stop the train of my thoughts. I kept replaying the image over and over, the black smoke, the infernal heat even through my suit, her completely passed out. I didn’t know what news I’d get at the hospital, but I’d stay there until I knew something. I wasn’t immediate family, but with my mom a nurse on staff there plus my knowing just about every emergency responder on the island, I’d get intel. I just prayed it was good news.



I could hear voices far in the distance. Beeping, too, lots of beeping. But it was as if

I were in a dream. I couldn’t open my eyes and I couldn’t talk, but I didn’t really want to anyway because my throat hurt so much. The next time I heard all the voices, I did try to open my lips but nothing came out but a cough. It felt like someone had taken sandpaper to the inside of my lungs and throat. I felt gentle pressure on my shoulder, and heard a voice I didn’t recognize telling me to rest, everything would be all right. That sounded good to me. Later on, how much later I couldn’t say, I fluttered open my eyes for a second. The lights above me were so bright, way too bright white. Where the hell was I? I could hear some machine making all kinds noise, that beeping sound I remembered, but why couldn’t I remember where I was and what was happening? Then there were lots of hands and voices and someone smoothed back my hair, telling me I was all right, I was OK. But it wasn’t Liam’s voice. Where was Liam? Finally, finally, minutes or hours or days later, I didn’t know, things kept slipping and sliding in my mind, I opened my eyes. There, next to me, sat lots of machines. Tubing seemed to connect them to me, me to them. But I didn’t feel panic. I felt a strange disorientation, as if my brain couldn’t connect what I saw to what was happening to me. Down at the foot of my bed I saw two people. My mom sat in a chair, legs crossed, looking strangely sad and small. She hardly looked as if she were wearing any makeup at all. My mother never left the house without her face on. What was going on? Next to her, another person sat in a blue plastic chair. He had his head down in his hands, shoulders slumped. He looked so sad. But I didn’t feel sad when I saw him. I felt happy because it was Liam. “Liam,” I tried to say only what came out when I tried to speak was more like a

quiet croak. It was enough, though. Both of them jumped up as if they’d heard a gunshot. Liam was at my side in a split second. “Hey! Hey, Sophie.” He looked down at me so concerned, touching the side of my face. “How are you?” I smiled but I guess a tear slid down my cheek because he wiped it away. “Are you in pain?” he asked, worried, looking up, maybe for a nurse. I shook my head. My throat did hurt, but that wasn’t why I was crying. It was so good to see him. I reached for his hand and grasped it. “My baby.” My mother stood a few steps away from the cot, looking like she’d driven herself through a carwash. Her eye makeup had run down her cheeks, her hair was flat, her clothes all stretched out and wrinkled. In all my life I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen her look so disheveled. Except for those first few days after Ian got injured. I smiled at her, opting for the no voice option. Nothing seemed to come out when I tried to talk. She gave me an emotional look. Then, the moment over, she looked over and glared at Liam. Well, that didn’t take long. That made me smile more, imagining how much they both must have hated sitting together in a room. It almost made me start to laugh, but when I began to I felt such a strange pain deep in my chest I stopped, my eyes watering. “Shhh,” Liam calmed me, helping me breathe more easily, more slowly. “Take it easy.” “I’m in the hospital?” I whispered. When I spoke quietly it didn’t hurt too much. “Yes, you inhaled some smoke. But you’re going to be all right.” “How long?” I managed. “Two days!” my mother wailed, pressing a tissue to her eyes. “Thirty-seven hours,” Liam added. “You got checked in Saturday morning at two a.m. Now it’s Sunday afternoon.” I smiled at him in response. He was so responsible. I knew I could rely on him to be exact. And to tell me the truth. “Am I OK?” I more mouthed the words than whispered. My throat was hurting too much to talk. I looked at the tubes running through me, my nose and my arm. My body was covered underneath a sheet in the hospital cot. How bad off was I? “Yes, you’re OK,” Liam rushed to reassure me. “The smoke inhalation was the worst thing, but now you’re conscious. So that’s good.” I looked back at him and caught him brushing the corner of his eye. His voice had cracked a little at the end of his last sentence. But he took a breath and continued, more steady. “You’ve got some burns on your arm and back, but they’re first and second degree so you’re

going to be all right.” “What were you thinking?” my mother cried out. “How did this happen?” A nurse rushed in to see me, ushering both Liam and my mother out of the way. A doctor followed soon after and they shrank even farther away, giving them space. Liam neared the door, but I caught his eye. “Stay,” I mouthed the word. He nodded, responding, “I’ll stay.” I closed my eyes again, needing to rest, knowing when I opened them again he’d be there for me. The next 12 hours passed much the same way, mostly sleeping, occasionally waking with machines and nurses. The next time I awakened, I told Liam to go home and rest. I hadn’t really meant for him to sit vigil by my bedside every second. But he insisted on staying. A doctor explained to me that I’d inhaled a lot of smoke, and sometimes harmful chemicals were in that kind of smoke. That was what was causing the pain, and why they needed to keep me in the hospital for at least another 24-48 hours of observation. So far, I looked good, but they needed to monitor me closely. The police came to my bedside to ask me a few questions. I answered as best I could, held back somewhat by my lack of voice but mostly because I couldn’t remember much. “What can you tell us about what happened?” an officer who couldn’t be much older than me asked, sitting by my bed. “I don’t know,” I answered honestly. All I remembered were people running. And the feeling of choking as the smoke started billowing in. I remembered dropping to my knees in it. “Do you remember seeing any lit candles?” she asked. “Yes. A ton.” I remembered candles everywhere, now that she’d asked me. The whole party had been lit by candles, on tables draped in velvet cloths. So stupid, now that I thought of it. They might as well have doused the boat with kerosene for good measure. “Where were the candles?” “Everywhere.” I remembered how lavish it had been, how excessive it had seemed. I should have listened to that warning voice in my head. But I hadn’t been in the mood. I’d wanted to escape my head, get drunk and party. The officer left soon after. But Liam followed my train of thought. “Is it hard to remember what happened?” he asked, holding my hand and sitting by the side of my cot. I nodded, trying to search my memory but it was all so hazy. “I was drunk,” I

admitted. “You were upset.” I nodded, trying to remember. “How did I get out?” “I found you.” “You saved me?” “I should have gotten there earlier. You wouldn’t have been there at all if—” “Thank you.” He stopped, looking into my eyes. I wanted to know the full story, everything that had happened, but it hurt too much to talk. It would all have to wait. But I did remember to ask, “Whitney and Theo, are they OK?” His gaze darkened. “Yeah, they’re fine.” “Where did you find me?” I couldn’t remember anything after being in a corner with Theo trying to kiss me. I left out that detail for Liam. “On the lower level. Passed out on the floor.” Try as I might, I couldn’t piece together what had happened. But I guess it didn’t really matter. Basically, I knew what I needed to know. My so-called friends hadn’t helped me. Liam had. Whitney came to visit me that night. She cried as she sat at my bedside, real tears streaming down her pretty face. “Don’t cry, Whitney. I’m OK.” “But you were down there. I didn’t realize you were.” She really seemed wracked with guilt over it. “It’s OK. I don’t even remember what happened.” “You don’t?” Why did she brighten up at that fact? I didn’t even want to know. “Well, I swear, if I’d really known you were down there…” “It’s fine, Whitney. Liam saved me.” “I saw him running with you.” “You did?” “It was like out of a movie. He moved so fast. I wish someone would care about me like that.” I sighed. Leave it to Whitney to turn it around and make it about herself. After I assured her that I was all right and, maybe more importantly, I didn’t blame her for anything that happened, she chattered away about other things. “Theo was so amazing the night of the accident. He was rushing around, making sure everything was handled right. He’s so alpha, do you know what I mean?” I nodded, thinking that if Theo was her version of alpha she really had no idea what she was talking about. “That interior designer,” Whitney shook her head. “What was she thinking? She put open flames all over the place, on top of all of those tapestries. She’s probably

like a direct descendent of the guy who designed the Titantic. The one who made the call to only put in two emergency rowboats.” And that person had probably been under as much pressure from demanding rich people, I thought but didn’t say. Aesthetics before safety! But it wasn’t worth the effort of pointing that out to Whitney. I had a feeling the two of us were going to see less and less of each other from now on. No one had died in the accident, thank God. But several others had been injured. How had Theo been so reckless? I knew Whitney and I’m sure Theo were blaming the interior designer, poor thing. She’d never work again in that line of business. But Theo had OK’d it. I was sure he’d somehow manage to squirm out of any responsibility, though. I was sure he employed a whole team of lawyers to help him out of scrapes. That’s how rich people did things. I should know. Back when Ian had gotten into the accident, the fact that he’d stolen the boat had gotten swept under the rug. I didn’t know any of the details about how that all had been handled, nor would I ever, but I was sure the Douglas family attorneys had been well employed. Chase’s family had money and connections as well, and Chase had gone on to a certain amount of prominence as an Olympic swimmer. I was sure they’d done their part as well to keep all the detail of the circ*mstance on the down low. As for Jax and Liam? Their families lacked money or power, but they’d benefitted by association. I couldn’t imagine what would have happened had they stolen that boat on their own, or if anyone had been injured and placed the blame on one of their heads. They’d probably still be serving jail time right now. Before long, Liam returned to my side. The doctors said I’d only need to be in the hospital one more night for observation. The worst of it was my smoke inhalation. They wanted a bit longer to monitor my lungs and neurological function, but so far everything looked normal. My mom came by, too, still hysterical. Apparently my father was in Hong Kong but planning on flying back tomorrow. Liam tried to calm her down, reminding her the doctors said I was going to be all right, set to go home tomorrow. But she turned on him, spitting out her words. “Why is it whenever you’re around my children get into horrible accidents? What are you even doing here?” “Mom,” I stopped her, propping myself up on my elbows, speaking more loudly and forcefully than I had since the accident. “His name is Liam. And he saved my life. So be nice to him.” Even that took a lot out of me and I lay down to rest after the outburst. But not before I saw a look of pure love on Liam’s face. Regina visited while I was sleeping, but she left flowers. Margot and Eloise

stopped by, too. Eloise brought peonies and lots of pictures, too, which she taped all around my hospital room even though I’d be leaving the next day. I even got a phone call from Ian. He almost sounded like his old self. “What, are you trying to copy me?” he joked. “Going down in a burning boat?” “Sorry, I’m not that original.” “At least think up your own disaster movie to star in. You had to copy mine.” “Next time I’ll do something on land.” I loved hearing him tease me like he used to. But then he grew more serious. “How are you?” “I think I’m all right.” “Are you…burned?” He hesitated as he asked. “Mostly first degree, a little second on my back. It’s not bad, though.” Nothing like yours, those were the words I thought but never would say. I knew it was what he was thinking, too, though. “Well, Jesus, Soph. When I got Liam’s message I nearly threw up.” “Liam called you?” “Yup. What’s going on there?” “Not sure.” “All right. Just make sure he treats you right.” “He saved my life, so that’s something.” “First Chase, then you.” I knew Ian had never blamed Liam for jumping in after Chase, leaving him on the boat. How could anyone? Except my mother, of course. “Well, that’s two more people than I’ve ever saved, so he’s got that going for him.” He got off the phone soon after, in a hurry to stop talking. From what I heard he kept mostly to himself most days. Maybe interacting was exhausting for him. And I was sure the topic was intense for him, too. Then, finally, it was just me and Liam. He kissed me softly and held my hand. “I’m so sorry,” he said again. He’d said it to me a bunch of times, as if he blamed himself for Theo’s yacht going up in flames. “You don’t have to be sorry,” I reassured him. “I’ve been an ass.” “Sort of,” I agreed. “But saving my life made up for it.” “I’m so sorry.” “You’ve said that. Just show me from now on. You’ve said it enough.” “All right. That’s a deal.” “Can that be on my end, too?” I ventured to ask. “I’m sorry I hurt you so much. Years ago.” “I can’t believe I even brought that up, as if I was holding a grudge.” He shook

his head as if he were cursing himself. “You were only 18. For all I know it was the right decision. If some guy wanted to follow after my teenage daughter I might want to kick him in the teeth.” “Well, I’m glad that didn’t happen.” “Me, too.” He smiled at me, then added, “But joking aside, I want you to know. If you want me, I’m yours.” “I want you.” He looked straight into my eyes. “Now you’ve got all of me.”



Those 36 hours before Sophie woke up were the longest hours of my life. The doctors kept assuring us her vitals looked good. She’d been through a trauma and rest was her body’s way of helping her heal. Sleep was the best thing for her. I knew these things already, having received extensive medical training as an EMT and firefighter. I knew all about smoke inhalation, since rescuing people from fires was my job and had been my father’s as well. But this time it was different. Wondering about how other people recovered from injuries after a blaze was one thing. Worrying about the woman I loved was entirely another. All those doubts and the dark cloud of confusion that had chased me the weeks since she’d been back? That all evaporated the second I found her lying on the floor in that yacht. The second I’d thought I might have lost her, I realized I had to do everything I could to hold onto her for the rest of my life. Sophie was my one and only. True, I was still the same flawed beast I always had been, but that now seemed irrelevant. There was no off switch for what I felt for her anymore. I’d stop trying to look for one. I would try to be a better person, though. As I sat in the hospital waiting for her to awaken, I made all kinds of promises, to myself, to the God I’d been raised to believe in. I wasn’t exactly sure who or what out there in the universe might be listening to me, but I sent it up anyway, my intentions to be a better man. I’d try to live up to my own ideals, be the man I aspired to be, not just the helpful, friendly man on the outside but on the inside, too. I didn’t want to live my life afraid that I was exactly like my father. All my fear that I was like him was pushing me into making that fear a reality. It had been holding me back from Sophie, making me alienate myself from her, ultimately hurt her in a very real way. And I didn’t mean the spanking, I meant the way I’d kept hurting her by leaving. This time, if she let me, if I just got one more chance, I’d

stay. At first, her mother wanted nothing to do with me. She didn’t want me in the room with Sophie. “Family only!” she’d barked at me, glaring as if I’d injured Sophie, myself. Of course my guilt agreed with her. I had pushed her into a mental and emotional state that had made her go to that party. If I’d only just stuck around and held her in my arms, kissed her and told her how I felt like Chase and Emma had advised me, none of this would have happened. But then someone must have talked to her. I wasn’t sure who it was, and maybe it was more than one person. This was a small, local hospital where my mom worked. In fact, my mom was working a shift when Mrs. Douglas walked toward me in the waiting room with bleary, red eyes. “Come on,” she said, turning on her heels like a soldier and leading me back to the room where Sophie lay. I didn’t ask any questions. I followed her, understanding that this must be extremely hard for her to voluntarily invite me back to see her daughter. It was a lot easier to hate and blame than it was to open up your heart. Seeing Sophie lying there looking so pale made my heart lurch. She was such a lively, sparkling person, moving so gracefully as if dancing through even everyday activities. Even in the waiting room, doctors and nurses had kept me informed and updated. I was Jackie Connolly’s son, after all, and word also got round fast that I’d been the one to rescue her. If my mom’s influence didn’t make all the difference— and I was pretty sure that was all it took, she was universally loved—my having found Sophie and run her out to an ambulance got them the rest of the way. Once I’d gained access to Sophie’s room, I didn’t leave. I brought her mother coffee she didn’t drink and pastries she didn’t eat. I wondered where Sophie’s father was and Margot, too, but I didn’t ask. That wasn’t my business. And all I really cared about was the woman lying in that cot motionless under hospital sheets, looking far too frail and wan for a 25-year-old in the peak of health. The thing about smoke inhalation is you never could be too sure what chemicals had gotten into your lungs. The materials burning in that boat released all kinds of dangerous toxins—sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, chlorine, ammonia. They weren’t just irritants, they were poisons that could kill. Just because she’d survived the initial onslaught didn’t mean she wouldn’t sustain permanent damage to her brain, and the longer she went without becoming conscious again, the more likely that possibility grew. I didn’t voice any of that to Mrs. Douglas. I was pretty sure none of the doctors told her, either. Knowing each minute her daughter lay unconscious increased the

likelihood that she’d never recover fully would only jettison her into a panic. As it was, I was sure she was reliving the injuries her son Ian had sustained, after a fire on a boat no less. The coincidence would be stranger if both accidents hadn’t taken place on Naugatuck. Almost everyone who’d spent serious time out there had some close-call story about the ocean, usually on a boat. But this one did take the cake in terms of flagrant violation of fire code. Theo had clearly been trying hard to impress, going way over-the-top in some kind of opulent ancient Roman theme, thumbing his nose at fate as he welcomed guests into an enclosed area with poor ventilation, hundreds of open flames and tapestries supplying the kindling. Lost in my own thoughts of vengeance, largely against Theo for being the most arrogant, selfish, reckless man on the planet, but also against myself for pushing her into his arms, I was unprepared for Mrs. Douglas’s words. “Thank you,” she said, sitting behind me in the arm chair she’d barely left the whole time we waited. I turned around, not sure I’d heard her correctly. “Thank you,” she repeated, not speaking loudly but she did speak clearly. “Thank you for rescuing her.” I nodded, not able to manage much else. So someone had talked to her, told her my role in getting Sophie out. I turned back to Sophie, not wanting to prolong the moment, mostly in deference to Mrs. Douglas. She must have had to rip those words out of her heart. I’d always known she’d blamed me for Ian’s injuries. I’d never explained everything that had happened that night when we were 14 to her. Almost the second we hit dry land we had lawyers swarming over us, telling us to talk to them and only them. The Douglas and Carter families were on it, and somehow the fact that we’d stolen the boat for a joyride had been kept out of the papers and we never faced any legal action. But it also tamped a cloak of secrecy over the night, leaving us each unable to talk about it with anyone other than our parents. I’d never even been able to tell Sophie everything. But the fact was, when that storm rose up out of nowhere, I’d been the one on the boat who got us into life jackets. I’d been the one to radio the Coast Guard and give them our coordinates, even though Jax and Ian had both told me not to. They’d still been too worried about getting in trouble, but neither of them understood the ocean like I did. I knew we faced much greater trouble than the law. Mother Nature wouldn’t care that we were minors, she’d mete out vicious punishment no matter how clean our prior records. I had left Ian on the boat, but when I’d done that he wasn’t trapped under anything. He and Jax were doing all right, lashed in place with rope that I’d tied, each wearing a life jacket. I hadn’t known that the rope would keep him

underneath a burning mast. I had no way of knowing that, even though it still did make me feel guilty. But I’d responded to the emergency right before my eyes, not the one that hadn’t happened yet. In sudden hurricane-force winds, the front end of the boat had snapped clean off, flipped on its side and Chase got thrown into the water. But I’d already located and inflated a raft, not because I was some kind of hero but because I knew about that kind of sh*t. My father was a firefighter and I’d grown up on an island listening to grown men talk about the water with true reverence and even fear in their eyes. I’d tied the raft’s cord around my waist and dove in after Chase. And somehow, in the middle of all that churning black chaos, I’d caught a lucky break and been able to find him and drag him up and onto the raft with me. Ian hadn’t been so lucky. The Coast Guard had arrived, but only after severe damage had been done. Jax had done what he could, but he hadn’t been strong enough to lift the mast off of Ian. I knew that had nearly killed him. He’d only talked about it once with me. His parents had split up after the accident, and his mom moved him down to Texas. We didn’t talk much, though I kept in touch enough to always know where he was living. It wasn’t until he was 21 that he came to visit. One night, when we were sitting out and drinking on the deck, watching that damn ocean, he came out with it. He still had nightmares, he told me. Watching Ian trapped, his screams. He’d never forget or forgive himself. I’d told him all the things I’d told myself. That there was nothing he could do. “But you saved Chase’s life,” he’d told me, his eyes looking dead. “And I watched Ian die.” “He didn’t die,” I’d pointed out. “He wishes he did,” Jax had answered, with such condemnation in his words. All that guilt, all that turmoil and pain swirled around Mrs. Douglas and I in the hospital room as we waited for yet another of her children to recover from yet another accident involving fire on a boat. And yet she’d found the words to thank me. To say it meant a lot was an understatement. Back turned to her, I spoke from the heart. “I love Ian. And I’m in love with Sophie. I’d do anything for them. I wish…” I struggled for the words, wanting to tell her I wished I’d done more for Ian that night. I wished I’d been smarter and never even hopped on that boat Ian and Jax had stolen. I wished I’d thought to get Ian and Jax safely off and into a lifeboat. I wished I’d somehow been able to split myself in two so I could both rescue Chase and Ian. “I’m sorry,” I began, but she interrupted me. “It’s all right,” she said, and from the choked sound of her voice I could tell she

was crying. “I know what happened with Ian wasn’t your fault.” Then I had to wipe a tear from my eye. Hearing her say that lifted something I hadn’t even realized had been weighing me down. I’d always told myself I’d done all I could, but to hear her say it, I felt it. By the time Sophie finally awakened, both Mrs. Douglas and I had recovered ourselves into an uncomfortable, awkward silence once again. She and I would never be besties, but I wasn’t sure she was that type of person. I couldn’t imagine her letting down her guard with anyone, really. Even with her daughter, once Sophie regained consciousness, I noticed she rarely came over directly to the bedside. She obviously cared deeply. She’d barely left Sophie’s side the whole 37 hours she’d lain in that bed. But she didn’t move to hold her hand, or tell her she loved her. I couldn’t imagine anyone stopping my mother from doing those two things if I lay in a hospital bed. Hell, it was hard to get her to not do that on a typical Tuesday morning. It made me more certain I wanted Sophie to come home with me after she got discharged from the hospital. She’d need someone to take care of her for a few days, maybe even a week. I wanted that person to be me. I’d have to wait for the right time to ask her, though, when we finally got a moment alone. The day before Sophie was set to go home, I ran into an especially unwelcome visitor in the hallway. Theo Bartright had a bouquet of red roses in his hand and looked so put-together he might have stepped right out of an ad for men’s cologne. He’d probably played tennis that morning, gotten himself a massage and a shave and decided he’d pop in to continue his pursuit of Sophie. “What are you doing here?” I asked him. I had about an inch of height on him and easy 30 pounds of muscle. Drawing myself up, bulking myself out, I stood in the center of the hallway physically blocking his passage. “What are you doing here?” he shot right back at me, almost sounding exasperated. That’s right, motherf*cker. He thought I’d been a pain in his ass so far? He’d never see Sophie’s face again without my ugly mug next to it. “I’m here with Sophie,” I answered. Not visiting, not checking in, I was with her. “Well, I’m bringing her these flowers if you’ll just excuse me.” Mr. Huff-n-puff had another thing coming if he thought he could pull what he did on that boat and then waltz in as if roses could undo the damage, absolve his responsibility. I leaned in and told him real close in his ear so there’d be no mistaking my words. “You left her there to die.” The way he recoiled as if he’d been punched told me I’d hit the nail on the head. I didn’t know exactly what had gone down that night, but I’d seen the way that man

looked at my woman. You couldn’t tell me she’d show up at his party and he’d let her out of his sight. He’d been hunting her down all summer and he finally had her in his crosshairs. He’d had to have known exactly where Sophie was when the fire broke out. And instead of doing the right thing, making sure she made it out safe and sound, he’d saved his own neck. “What gives you the right to talk to me this way?” he asked, a bit of a cower in his stance despite the bravado in his words. “Because I’m the man who made sure she survived.” “Who are you?” he asked as if finally acknowledging me as a worthy opponent, not just a fly to be swatted but a force to be reckoned with. “I’m the man who loves her,” I explained, matter of fact. “And if you have a single shred of decency in that worm of a heart, you’ll turn around and let her go. Because you don’t deserve her.” He glared at me, clearly a man not used to being denied a single thing. But then he turned around and left. Watching him retreat almost made me like the guy. Almost. Finally, the morning of the day Sophie was supposed to go home, it was just the two of us in her room when she woke up. “Morning,” I greeted her, moving over to take her hand. “Did you sleep here?” she asked, groggy. I nodded. I’d taken the time off work so I could be by her side. There were few things firefighters were more sensitive to than a loved one getting injured in a fire. My chief had told me to take as much time as I needed. “I want to ask you something,” I started in, knowing I might only have a couple of minutes. People kept coming to visit, and I didn’t want to have to ask her surrounded by others. “Would you like…” No, that wasn’t the way to put it. I cleared my throat and started over. “May I ask you if you’d come home with me? So I can take care of you? Until you’re back on your feet. I know you could go to your mom’s, but I’d feel better—” “Yes.” “Yes?” When I finally looked up instead of down at my sneakers I saw tears in her eyes. “Yes, I’d love to go home with you.” More words tumbled out. “I know I didn’t ask you back to my place before and I was being an ass—” “Remember, we promised.” She shook her head, smiling up at me. “No more apologies. From now on, let’s both just try to do right by each other.” I smiled back at her. Wiser words had never been spoken.

Her mother protested a bit when Sophie told her she’d be going home with me. “But does he have the facilities to take care of you?” As if she needed a wheelchair ramp and a full staff. She’d quickly transitioned from her moment of generosity and kindness back to a hardened, bitter shell, but I guess that was the thing with armor. It was a bitch to take off completely. “He has all I need,” she’d replied simply. I brought her home with me and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. They’d pushed her to my truck in a wheelchair, even though she’d insisted she could walk. She tried telling me the same thing when I picked her up and carried her to my door. “Liam, I’m fine!” she’d said, but I liked the feel of her in my arms, against my chest. I wanted a lot more of that. Inside, I laid her on the couch, adjusting pillows and bringing over a blanket even though the day was warm and sunny. “This is gorgeous!” She looked around, clearly liking what she could see. I did love my place, not that big but I’d built a lot of it with my own hands. I didn’t have much in it, not a lot of furniture or knickknacks. My mom’s house was filled with plants and photos and figurines, of which I didn’t have a single one. But what I did have was a view of the ocean from almost every window. Right outside my doorstep, it smashed and crashed against the rocks, providing all the decoration and entertainment I could ever want. “I can’t believe you ever manage to leave.” She settled back on the couch, gazing out the window. “You’re right on the water.” “I hope you never do leave.” I kissed her head, knowing I was talking kind of crazy but it was exactly how I felt. I was done holding back. I’d almost lost her and now, if I ever lost her again, I’d make damn sure it wasn’t because I hadn’t let her know how I really felt. She regained strength quickly, but I had to give my mom most of the credit for that. She bustled around the cottage, brightening it up with flowers and bringing over soups and stews and breads and all sorts of fresh fruit and veggies from the Farmer’s Market. “Look at you, so pretty even after all you’ve been through.” She fussed over Sophie as if she were her own daughter. “I’m sure that’s not true,” Sophie laughed, self-consciously smoothing down her hair, not a lick of makeup on her face. “Oh, it is and you know it. Enjoy being 25 my love,” my mother told her. “You won’t always be, so enjoy it while it lasts.” I enjoyed the easy conversation that flowed between Sophie and my mom,

catching up, discussing the studio. The two of them obviously liked each other a lot. They’d gotten along when they’d met back the summer Sophie and I had first dated, but we’d been such kids then and my mom had still been married to a brutal, abusive man. Now, it was as if they’d both bloomed, Sophie into a gorgeous and grounded woman and my mother into a calmer, more open version of her already loving and kind self. “I can’t wait to come see!” my mother declared, as we all mutually agreed that Sophie was well enough to start getting up and about, heading back to the dance studio. Her burns were healing well. My mother assured her only one patch on her back would likely leave a scar, and even that would fade over time. The last night before she was set to return back to her apartment, we sat outside together, her in my lap. “I’ve loved having you living here with me.” I nuzzled her cheek, kissed her neck. She sighed and leaned into me, then rested her head on my chest. “I love being with you.” “You could stay, you know,” I suggested, allowing the eagerness to creep into my voice. “You don’t have to move back to your own place. You could move in with me.” “It’s tempting, Liam,” she agreed, but I could already hear the “no” in her voice. “But I think I need to head back to my own place. I only just got my own feet underneath me. I need some more time on my own before I can, you know…” She looked up at me shyly. “Marry me and have my babies?” I finished the thought for her. Like I said, I wasn’t holding back any more. She laughed, snuggling into me. “Yes, that does sound good.” “So how many do you want?” I asked, arms securely around her. “How many what?” “Kids,” I replied as if it were obvious that were the next item up for discussion. “I’m thinking we might really want to go for it. Field our own baseball team.” “You think?” she laughed. “How many would that take?” “Nine,” I replied, matter-of-fact. “Though we might want to go for ten just in case one of them needs to sit out an injury.” “That’s good, like a spare,” she agreed. “Right.” We both laughed. “Liam, I want you to know, I feel like I need to move back into my own place but I’m not pulling away. I love this.” She rested her head against my chest, her palm pressed to my beating heart. “I love how open you’re being, how much you’re sharing with me. I don’t want to lose that.”

“You won’t,” I reassured her. “I’m not going anywhere.” “Good.” I could have left it at that. But, like I said, I was done holding back. “I love you, Sophie. With all my heart.” She pressed herself against me, her body responding even before she spoke the words, “I love you too, Liam.” We looked out at the ocean together and I could feel it in my soul, how I could do that the rest of my life, sitting there with her as we grew old together, hopefully with some children, maybe just two or three instead of a whole baseball team running around us. That’s what life was really all about, and I wanted to share it with her. I didn’t feel like a perfect man. I fell short of my aspirations every day. But I did feel whole with Sophie. She knew me completely, better than anyone else, and she’d still made the highly questionable but undeniable choice to love me. I’d spend the rest of my life trying to be worthy of her choice.



L iam and I were going to finish the studio tomorrow. Of course there were still a

million little things that needed to be taken care of. I needed window treatments for sunny days when I held afternoon classes. Lots of days on Naugatuck were cloudy and cool or even cold, but there were a few August afternoons when the glare through the windows heated the studio up to about a zillion degrees. I needed a bench and a curtain up in the back room, soon to be known as the changing room. That would do for now. In time, I might try to put in some lockers and something more private, but for opening day in just three weeks it would be enough. I’d set up a website. Regina had a friend who knew all about that kind of stuff. It was amazing how quickly she got it all up and running. Two hours of brainstorming at my folding kitchen table—still hadn’t gotten around to buying something more permanent, but it would happen—and the next day she’d called me to tell me my business had a functioning website. Joy in Dance was officially up and running! I hired her on the spot on an ongoing basis to update it and help with class signups and payments. I had no idea what I was doing on that end and it didn’t make sense for me to even try to develop that skill set. I’d waste time and screw things up. Far better to keep me out doing what I loved. Because I loved to dance. Now that I had my own studio, the creativity flowed and I woke every morning thrilled to start the day. What would I teach? To what kind of music? What types of dance should we start offering first? Lara, my friend I’d reached out to earlier, surprised the hell out of me by showing up on my doorstep one day, bag in hand. “I’m in!” she’d declared, telling me she was done with the cutthroat world of professional ballet. “I never even liked ballet!” she confessed as if telling me about a heinous crime. “Then let’s burn your tutu!” I’d agreed, not wanting either of us to waste

another minute slaving away to some other’s ideal. Me, though? I did still love ballet, but the ballet I envisioned didn’t punish for body type or focus on imperfections. It required discipline, surely, but celebrated the grace and fluid movement inherent in the human body. In all of our bodies, if we developed the muscular strength, the flexibility, the deep knowledge of form and position that came from years of practice. I couldn’t wait to infuse it in my students, working together to make ballet not just a thing of beauty, but a source of inspiration and joy. Liam showed up at half-past eight, right after his 24-hour shift at the station. “You should have napped first,” I scolded him, still happy to see him as I greeted him with a kiss. “Today? Not happening.” He kissed me back, holding me in a tight embrace as if it had been more than a day since he’d seen me. As if he’d been thinking about holding me since the last time he’d done it. “Today we’re finishing your studio.” All we had was the barre to install. We already had mirrors all across the wall on the other side. Now we needed the finishing touch, fixing the barre along the other three walls. Then it would become a dance studio. He’d assured me we didn’t need anyone else to do it right. He knew what to do and if I helped him, we’d get it all installed that day. I loved the idea of finishing my studio with my own hands. It took five hours of work, plus an hour break to grab some lunch at a café, but by the afternoon it was all set up. The wooden floors gleamed, the walls spotless and bright, the barre at exactly the right height, secure and steady. “Thank you!” I threw my arms around his neck, my heart bursting it felt so full. “I never could have done this without you.” “You’re the one with the vision,” he reminded me. “I tried to talk you out of it.” “You were just being sensible,” I defended him. “I really didn’t know what I was talking about. The historical preservation society is pretty crazy.” “But you’re crazier.” His kisses melted me, as they always did, and he swept me into his arms, carrying me into the back room. “The studio’s officially done. I think we need to celebrate.” He pulled off my shirt and started sliding down my shorts. “You mean like open a bottle of champagne?” I teased, knowing he had something better in mind. “Yeah, I’ll go run out and get one,” he agreed while taking off his jeans. He pulled his T-shirt off his head and, I swear, every time he did it gave me a thrill. The man was so fine, all sculpted muscle like a Greek statue. “I want you to know.” I looked up into his eyes as I ran my hands down his

chest, his abs, up again to his powerful shoulders and biceps. “Even if you weren’t such a nice guy, I’d love you just for your body.” “That means so much to me.” He leaned down, kissing my mouth, my throat, my ear. “I love knowing you’re so superficial. It really gives me a lot of leeway.” He caught me in his arms and lay me down on the floor, spread before him. “Yes, I—” But whatever witty comeback I had on the tip of my tongue was quickly forgotten when he started using his. One hand to either thigh, he opened me wide and started feasting like a starving man, his tongue flicking, pressing against my cl*t, sucking and kissing and working me into a writhing, panting mess in under a minute. He lifted his head and allowed me to catch my breath for a moment. “I like it when you tease me,” he said with a smile. “But I like it better when you can’t even manage to do it.” Down again, he played with me, getting me close then moving away, pressing light kisses to my inner thighs, making me squirm until he told me to stay still or I wouldn’t get what I most wanted. Finally, he decided I’d had enough, or he couldn’t wait anymore, either, and he bit into me, telling me to cum for him in his mouth. That was an offer I could never refuse and I did it just the way he liked it, unrestrained, unashamed, giving him all I had. That night we did have champagne over dinner. Liam scoffed at my grill pan, a poor substitute, but I didn’t have a yard or even a patio outside to accommodate a real grill. I knew he was putting up with it on a purely temporary basis. He hadn’t asked me again, but I knew the offer was still standing to move in with him. I could feel how good it would be, living with him. Waking up next to him, falling asleep in his arms. I couldn’t imagine anything I’d love more. Lara had found a place to sublet, but it was only through October. Once winter set in, the owners planned to shut it down, preferring five months of no income to fully winterizing and maintaining their property during the cruelest months. She’d love to move into the apartment over the studio. I hadn’t made any promises, to her or to Liam, but I was seriously considering it. “Have you heard from Margot?” Liam asked as we danced around each other in my small kitchen. I wasn’t exactly ready for a competitive spot on Top Chef, but I was learning a thing or two about cooking. It turned out that butter and salt were key ingredients in just about anything and everything. The mashed potatoes I was making were getting a lot of both. I sighed, as I almost always did when discussing my sister. “They’ve found a house to rent.” I relayed what she’d told me, about the nice neighborhood and the good school Eloise would attend for kindergarten. Because she’d taken Eloise and

moved back to the town in North Carolina she’d recently left. Now she’d returned without a job lined up or a stable set of friends to help secure her sobriety. It broke my heart to see it happening. Saying good-bye to Eloise had nearly killed me. I’d managed to not cry while I’d hugged her sobbing little body. I didn’t want her to go, either. But I’d sure cried that night, remembering how she’d whispered softly in my ear, “Can’t I stay here with you, Auntie?” I wanted to say yes, but I knew I didn’t have the right. I wasn’t about to get into a custody battle with my sister. Plus, who knew, maybe Margot would straighten out this time? What I could do was stay in better touch. I promised I’d go visit that fall. And if I didn’t like what I saw, then I’d think about what I could do to help Eloise. “You’ll see her again soon,” Liam reassured me, a hand to my shoulder. He knew without my saying how worried I was about Eloise. “Yeah,” I agreed. That was all I could do for now. “And Mom’s back in Wellesley.” I shared my other piece of news. Once Margot and Eloise had left, with me in my own apartment, I’d figured her days on the island were numbered. It was mid-August, anyway, and most of the social events of the summer season had already passed. It was a good time to pack up and head to the mainland. “I’ll miss our long talks,” Liam joked, and I had to laugh, even though it also made me sad. My mother was like an impenetrable fortress. The best times I had with her were those in which she practiced restraint. In the past couple of weeks since I’d gotten out of the hospital, she’d held her tongue about Liam. Now that we were out in the open, spending most of the time he wasn’t at the fire station together, officially a serious couple, I was expecting a long, heated lecture. I’d been waiting for her to tell me what a mistake I was making, how I’d thrown away an amazing opportunity by letting Theo Bartright slip through my fingers. Maybe if she’d really gone for it she might have revisited her earlier theme about how Liam was to blame for Ian’s troubles, and dating him was tantamount to treason. But she didn’t. She remained oddly silent on the Liam subject. I didn’t know what was the cause, but it simply could have been his act of heroism. In the middle of a blazing fire, I’d been abandoned. I knew because my burns were on my back, I’d been lying face-down on the ground. If it weren’t for Liam’s fortitude, his perseverance, his love of me pushing him down into the bowels of the ship to search and rescue, I’d be dead. That had to make a difference, even to someone as emotionally wounded, and as class- and money-conscious as my mother. We ate dinner, enjoying that mix that came so easily between us of laughter and conversation. We washed dishes and teased each other, talked about what we wanted to do that night when both of us knew exactly what we wanted to do that night. We wanted to get lost in each other.

But there was something we needed to talk about. We’d been intimate since the accident, in more ways than one. He’d been true to his word, never leaving in the middle of the night but staying with me the whole time. He’d told me he loved me, asked me to move in with him. He was truly a changed man, opening himself up to me in a way I’d never thought possible. But he’d also changed the way he expressed himself sexually. We made love, fierce and passionate, clawing at the sheets raw and sweaty and panting for more. He went down on me and gave me breathtaking org*sms that made me see stars and scream out his name. But he wasn’t rough with me anymore. No bondage, no toys, he hadn’t even spanked me once. Was it sick and twisted to admit that I missed it? Was it perverted and ungrateful to say that great sex wasn’t enough for me? Regardless, the absence of kink was glaringly obvious. Each day that passed it seemed more and more like the elephant in the room, sitting there on the bed with us as he caressed me gently and lovingly. “OK, Liam. We need to talk,” I said as we headed into the bedroom, kissing each other as we moved. Like a bucket of water on a fire, that statement seemed to douse his ardor. “About what?” He looked at me, instantly wary. “You don’t spank me anymore!” When I’d thought about how to broach the subject in my head, it had gone a lot smoother. I’d started by saying how much I enjoyed our sex life, how attracted to him I was, how he gave me the best org*sms I’d ever had. Then I’d start in about the changes. But that had been in my head. Apparently in reality I blurted. “What?” He took a step back, clearly completely surprised. “You used to get rough with me, tie me up and spank me. And I liked it.” Words tumbled out of my mouth. Better to get them out than let the embarrassment I could feel build, looming and threatening to wash over me like a rogue wave. “Now you’re so gentle. It feels good, but it’s…not the same.” “You miss me being rough with you?” “Yes!” I closed the distance between us, reaching out for his hands, wanting physical contact while I spoke so honestly. “I’m not saying it’s like every day I want that all the time. But, yes, that really turned me on.” He swallowed, taking hold of my hands. “You want that again?” “Yes,” I admitted, leaning into him. “Yes! It felt crazy and kind of scary and I don’t exactly understand it, but it was also so intense and good with you.” He held me to his chest and I could hear his heart beating fast. “I want that, too, but I was afraid… I don’t always feel like a good person when I do that.” “Why not?”

He sat down and I could tell he was struggling for the right words. “My father,” he began, and he reminded me about it all, telling me more than he ever had. I’d known that his father had been a violent man, particularly when drunk. That he’d led a double life, the big friendly Irish guy everyone loved at a party to the outside world. The mean drunk who smacked his wife and kids to those who really knew him. “It made me feel like him,” he summed it up simply but so painfully. “To enjoy hurting someone.” “But that’s now how it feels to me,” I rushed to explain. “It doesn’t feel like you’re being cruel or sad*stic. I’d never be able to trust you if it did.” “How does it feel?” “It feels…” Now I struggled for the words, not even sure myself how to explain how he’d made me feel. “It’s like this feeling of freedom. Tied up, you in control, you reading my body so intimately, it’s as if all the junk that usually clutters up my mind, all my to do lists, all my worries and insecurities and everything else just goes out the window. And all that’s left is you and what you’re doing to my body and it feels so good.” “It does?” Now his voice grew deeper, his eyes looking at me with dark intent. “You have no idea,” I whispered, longing for what I’d just described. “Well what are we waiting for?” He had me naked in seconds flat, stretched across his lap, vulnerable and positioned with my back arched, ass up in the air for his discipline. “You need this?” he asked me, caressing my bare cheeks. “Yes,” I exhaled, feeling it in my bones. “I need it from you.” The first smack of his hand across my ass felt so electric, so charged it nearly made me cum in an instant. “You wait until I tell you,” he reminded me, reading me as always with such expertise. He began what he did so well, peppering my thighs with slaps, getting me wet and panting and squirming on his lap, wanting to whine and beg for more. “I knew you needed discipline,” he whispered, caressing my ass, burning and stinking from his palm. “You need it from me, don’t you my love?” “Yes,” I cried, arching my back, surrendering to him as he spanked me hard, direct across my cl*t. I had to bite my lip to force myself not to cum. “That’s it,” he praised me, stroking me soft, then hitting me hard. “You take your punishment.” When he told me I could, I came apart so hard for him, my body and mind exploding with pleasure, endlessly sobbing, climaxing pleasure he kept coaxing again and again out of my body. “You’re mine,” he told me, growling it out rough and demanding and my body

sang its response, one org*sm feeding into another, each summit leading into the next peak until finally I collapsed, completely spent. He wrapped me in his arms, whispering in my ear, “And I’m yours. And I’m not done with you yet.” Propped up on my hands and knees, he f*cked me from behind, hammering into my puss* so hard I could barely stand the onslaught, bracing myself against the headboard, against the bed. But even as I struggled under his force, the size of his co*ck stretching my puss* as he pounded me mercilessly, that was exactly how I wanted it. Exactly how our two puzzle pieces fit together. No one else could match our edges and grooves. He shot his cum into me so deep, sending me over the edge yet again, quivering and shaking, crying out his name as he called out mine. Then we lay in bed, naked. I sprawled across his chest, panting. He brought his hand to my back, caressing me, down to my thighs, up again. “I wouldn’t change a thing about you, Sophie Douglas.” I smiled, too spent to say anything in response. I simply enjoyed, instead. “You know I never stopped loving you,” he added. “I never stopped, either,” I admitted, remembering those seven long years. Now that I was back with him, it seemed so obvious. That longing ache I’d never shaken, the way I’d felt numb with other men, it was Liam I’d been missing. “Do you ever wonder what would have happened if we’d never broken up? If you had moved to New York with me all those years ago?” He shook his head. “I used to, but not anymore. Now that life’s so good I wouldn’t want to change a thing.” “I was so young and stupid,” I continued, remembering it so vividly. “My mom told me it would be unfair to you to bring you to New York. You wouldn’t know anybody. I thought I was doing the right thing.” “Sophie.” He held me to him, kissing me full and deep. “Let it go. What happened, happened. What matters is now.” He held me, kissed me again and I felt his promise in it. “I love you, Liam.” I meant it body, mind and soul. “I love you, too,” he murmured. “And I’m never letting go.”


Right after Thanksgiving, our entire downtown exploded in little white lights. Every year we put together a big Christmas parade through the center of town and tourists flooded back for it. I wasn’t usually the kind of guy who noticed details, but this season all the lights plus the wreaths and bows on every streetlight and shop window struck me as beautiful. It was probably because I was in love. I’d become one of those annoying people, smiling at nothing, whistling as I worked. On nights off, Sophie and I liked to stroll downtown, arm in arm, hot chocolates or coffees in hand admiring the lights. We stopped to chat with locals we knew, admired babies and puppies and just about everything else. We were both pretty annoying, come to think of it. It couldn’t be helped. It came from being so happy. Neither of us could believe everything was coming together so nicely. Sophie had opened the doors of her dance studio in September, right at the start of the school year. She offered all kinds of dance classes to everyone from preschoolers to seniors. Her friend Lara helped her teach, and they had so much demand even during the “off” season they’d brought in one more teacher specializing in hip hop. Sophie had tried to talk me into take a class. As much as I loved my girlfriend, and I was completely crazy about her, that was not going to happen. “Don’t you want to move like JT?” she’d teased me, dancing around the living room to his latest hit. “Are you referring to Justin Timberlake?” “Don’t tell me you don’t admire his dance moves.” “OK, I’ll just keep that thought to myself.” “Seriously, though.” She’d perched herself on the arm of the couch. “He’s a straight white boy just like you, but he can move his hips! He’s proved it can be done!” “Are you saying I can’t move my hips?” Those were fighting words. She’d

started giggling and running away, which of course just baited the bear. We hadn’t done much discussing of dance classes after that. But I had shown her I could move my hips in a nice rhythm, thank you very much. I was so proud of her, seeing all her hard work paying off. Nights when she was working but I wasn’t, I usually stopped by to bring her something to eat. She’d go the entire afternoon and evening without a bite if I didn’t remind her. I guessed old habits died hard. One night in early December, I got there around 5:45 p.m. knowing she’d still be teaching for another 15 minutes but I wanted to stand outside and watch. Chilly as it was, I just pulled my hat down over my ears and enjoyed the scene inside. Sophie looked lit from within, laughing and flitting around her dancers. The girls all seemed to be in their early teens, maybe 13 or 14 years old, and they gazed at Sophie like she was a magical fairy princess touched down from above. She took to the front of the room to demonstrate something. I didn’t know what it was called, but she basically spun herself around like a top then flung herself high into the air like she weighed nothing, spread her legs into a perfect line, floated there for a while and then landed gracefully on both feet. At least that was how it seemed to me. Her students seemed to watch her with the same mystification. She laughed, said something reassuring which I could see made them all smile and then set them each working on one small piece of the movement. I could tell she was doing what she loved, and I loved seeing her do it. Once the class disbursed, I stole in for a moment with some soup. “From my mother,” I told her, giving her a quick kiss. “Ooh, what is it tonight!” “Chicken noodle.” Sophie’s eyes lit up. I set it all on a counter in back. “See you tonight.” I kissed her again, never one for missing an opportunity. “Thank you so much, Liam. I haven’t eaten since—” “I know, since lunch. You’re bad at that.” “I am,” she acknowledged. “See you around nine.” “Around nine.” She smiled and gave me one more kiss for good measure. See, I said we were annoying. I drove home, already eagerly anticipating her arrival in a few hours. Because she’d be heading exactly where I was. She’d moved into the cottage with me at the start of November, when Lara’s lease had run out. Lara now lived above the dance studio and Sophie lived with me, right where she belonged. Pulling in, I noticed that the light was on in the main house. Mom must be

home. I decided to stop in and say hello, tell her how much Sophie appreciated her soup. She was in the kitchen and when I sat down she put some pulled pork and a roll in front of me. “Eat,” she demanded, as if I hadn’t eaten a thing all day. “Don’t have to ask me twice,” I agreed, making myself a sandwich. There were many perks to living with my mother, and I was aware and grateful of every one of them. “So, tell me about the studio.” She always wanted to hear the latest news, how rehearsals were going for the big holiday performance, whether the new hip hop hire was working out. Half the time I had to tell her to ask Sophie directly, because I didn’t know the kind of details she wanted. The two of them were becoming fast friends. “Uh-huh.” She nodded at what I was able to tell her. And then she asked, “And when are you going to ask Sophie to marry you?” “Excuse me?” I’d been drinking a glass of water when she asked and just narrowly missed spitting it all over the table. “Sophie? When are you going to propose?” “Um, Mom, I haven’t exactly—” “Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t decided if you’re going to ask her.” She threw a dishtowel at me. It hit me square in the chest. Pretty good aim. But I was also a big target. “You and I have both known she was the one since that summer you dated years ago.” “You knew back then?” “Sure. The way you look at each other? The way you connect? That doesn’t happen often in life. You were both so young back then, but now you’re the perfect age.” “Why didn’t you ever say anything?” “What, was I supposed to do, rub salt into the wound? ‘Gee, son, you really lost the love of your life.’ You were sad enough as it was.” “True.” I couldn’t imagine how tough I would have taken it if she’d said that to me back when I was missing her so hard it was like having lost a limb. “I know!” She lit up. “Ask her when you’re in Scotland! That’ll be so romantic.” Sophie and I were traveling there after Christmas to visit Ian. I had no idea what we’d find when we got there, but it did seem to be the only way to see the man. He certainly wasn’t getting himself on a plane to come visit us. I’d never left the country before and couldn’t wait to do it with the love of my life. “You’ll make your brother, Pat, best man I’m assuming.” Mom hopped right

back onto the wedding planning train. She looked at me meaningfully. “Jax, Ian and Chase can be your groomsmen. But I think it would mean a lot to Pat.” I stood up, having already dogged my sandwich. She was such a good cook. “Let me just think about the whole main question for a little bit. That OK with you?” “What’s there to think about?” She shook her head in amused frustration. “Honestly, don’t over think this thing, honey. I know you can do that sometimes. But why waste any more time?” I walked back to the cottage mulling over her words. Was I really wasting time? I knew in my heart Sophie was the one, but I guess I’d been giving her time. She’d only moved in a couple of months ago. Would I be jumping the gun to ask her to marry me? I thought about calling Ian and asking his opinion, maybe even his permission, but I knew he wouldn’t pick up. I could call Chase but I already knew what he/Emma would tell me. “Just tell her how you feel!” No, I needed to talk to Jax. If anyone would tell me I was making a huge mistake, it would be Jax. He would be honest and straight with me. He wasn’t a romantic. He’d had it rough all his childhood, having to fight for everything he had. He didn’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses. He’d set me straight if that was what I needed. The conversation did not go as expected. I called him. He knew instantly something was on my mind. “What’s up?” he asked, direct as always. “So, ah, I’m thinking of asking Sophie to marry me. And I was, ah, wondering what you thought of the idea.” “Yeah, man, of course you should. She’s been under your skin since the day you met her. That’s never going to change.” “What?” I’d expected at least a little good-natured ribbing from my confirmed bachelor friend, probably hosting a party as we spoke with ten hot women waiting for him downstairs. “How do you know that Sophie’s been under my skin since the day I met her?” “You told me.” “I did?” I had no recollection of doing that. “Yeah, how you saw her dancing in the theater? The summer before you even dated.” “I told you about that?” I’d thought that was my own private memory. I hadn’t even told Sophie about that yet. Jax laughed. “You were pretty drunk when you told me about it.” “What other secrets have I told you about myself that I don’t remember?” He chuckled again. “I’m not telling.” And I knew he wouldn’t. He was good with

secrets. I had a feeling he had a few of his own. “OK, then, I guess what I should be asking you is if Sophie says yes—” “When she says yes,” he corrected me. “I’m not counting on a yes.” “Fine, have it your way. If she says yes, I’ll be there. And then I’ll have to work on the both of you to move out to Cali.” We agreed to disagree on that point. When I got off the phone, I realized I had a few more things on my to do list than I’d had that morning. First, I needed to get a ring. In all the years we’d been together I’d only given Sophie one other piece of jewelry, and that had been something she’d found on the beach. The first time we’d talked she’d played with a little white shell. I’d kept it, coated it in shellac and put it on a chain. That was cute for an 18-year-old, but now she was 26 and I wanted to find an engagement ring that would take her breath away. And there was something else I needed to put on my to do list. What was I forgetting? Oh, that was it. I needed to ask Sophie to marry me.


We were only a week away from Christmas. Many families were in gear-up mode, getting ready for the big day, wrapping presents, finalizing travel arrangements, planning holiday feasts. But for me, I could finally relax. Our big holiday dance performance had been over the weekend with Saturday and Sunday shows. I’d been terribly nervous, barely sleeping at night, forgetting to eat. It wasn’t that I wanted everything to be perfect. I did, of course, but more than that I wanted all my dancers to enjoy themselves. I wanted them to have a positive experience out on the stage, most of them for the first time. I knew what it was like to get out there under the lights. It felt scary and exposed. I worried about one of them tripping and falling not because it would reflect poorly on my studio, but because I knew that poor girl would remember that moment for the rest of her life. But now the days had come and gone and I could honestly say that the performances had been fantastic. We’d had a few flubs, some trouble with costumes and scenery, but nothing a regular audience member would notice. The dancers were all in varying stages of expertise, from brand new to more experienced, and what I loved about the shows was how everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. I took as much pleasure from watching the little ones admiring their sparkly tutus as I did from watching my most talented students jeté, pirouette and glissade across the stage with strength and grace. And now, most of all, I enjoyed having some down time before Christmas and, then, the trip Liam and I had planned to the UK. We were going to meet up with my former dance partner, Geoffrey, and his boyfriend in London for a couple of days. Then we were headed to the coast of Scotland to visit Ian. I couldn’t wait. In the past, all my performances had ended with more stress. What next? Had that performance been big and bold and perfect enough to win me another? Whose eye had I caught? Or, worse, had I displeased anyone? Disappointed someone

important? It was all nail-biting all the time, before, during and after performances. But not anymore. Now I was in the cottage I shared with Liam and we were about to cook dinner. Regina and her boyfriend Ed were coming over for dinner tomorrow night, but tonight was just us. I’d invited Margot and Eloise over to join, but they’d declined. As much as I enjoyed seeing them, I was happy they’d wanted to do it another day. Margot had moved back to the island a few weeks ago, enrolling Eloise in the local kindergarten. Things hadn’t worked out in Raleigh, and she wanted to try her hand back on more familiar ground. They’d moved into the family house and she’d hired herself a nanny with her trust fund money. I’d love to say that everything was going perfectly, but that would be a lie. What I could say was that I was grateful Eloise was nearby. She was going to start taking dance at my studio in January, the start of the next semester of classes. And I could see her any time I wanted. That, at least, helped me sleep easier at night. The rest of it I’d just have to wait and see with fingers crossed. Liam came up behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist, nuzzling my hair. “Hey, beautiful.” I smiled, leaning back against his solid chest. I was so lucky to have him. And I was so happy I’d agreed to move in. It felt so natural sharing a home with him. We’d really never hit a rough patch over it, no “that’s my towel” or “I need more space” issues. If anything, we wished we had more time together. With his 24 hours on, 48 hours off schedule plus my hectic teaching schedule every day, we didn’t see as much of each other as we’d like. But we still managed to make time for the important stuff. “I was thinking about you today.” He kissed my neck, working his hands down my body. “Were you?” I’d been thinking about him, too. He was surprisingly creative, always seeming to have some new idea he wanted to try out with me. It made me wonder what would come next. “Um hmm.” He moved his fingers lower, slipping past the waistband of my sweats, finding my panties. “You know that sound you make when I’m getting you right to the brink of org*sm?” He started stroking me as he asked, first outside my panties, then slipping his fingers underneath to touch me directly on my skin. Slick under his expert fingers, I leaned back into him, letting him do the work he did so well. With his other hand, he slid up my shirt, pulling down my bra. “Do you know the sound I’m talking about?” He tweaked my nipple as he asked,

pulsing against my throbbing cl*t. “No,” I panted. I had to admit I didn’t know what he was talking about. He made me make all kinds of sounds of pleasure. I wasn’t always aware, or in control of the moans and groans and sighs that came out of my mouth. “No?” he asked, working faster, taking my arousal and sliding it along my puss*, f*cking me slow and steady with two fingers. He moved his hand up to my throat, holding me there against him, keeping me still as he finger-f*cked me. The feeling of being held, dominated, triggered something in me and I could feel my arousal build. “That’s it,” he coaxed me, intimately aware as always of my level of response. “Let me take over. Let me make you feel good.” I closed my eyes, leaning my head back against his shoulder, letting the pleasure build, build up to climax. “Liam,” I moaned, feeling close, wanting him to move his attention back to my cl*t again, take me up and over. “That’s it,” he declared, moving his fingers away, releasing my throat. “What’s it?” I asked, eyes open, missing his touch intensely. “The sound.” He kissed my throat, my ear. “You made that sound I love.” “Liam!” I pushed him playfully. “Don’t stop at that!” “Don’t stop?” he looked at me, devilish mischief in his eyes. “All right. Come this way.” He led me into the bedroom and sat me on the bed. Then he sat on an arm chair in the corner. “Take off your clothes.” I undressed, standing before him, filled with anticipation. “Now lie on the bed,” he instructed. “Spread your legs. And touch yourself for me.” Without hesitation, I lay back, opening wide. I got myself right to the edge so he could see everything. I slid my fingers down to my slick puss* and started moving, playing with myself, enjoying it all the more that he could see. “f*ck yourself,” he ordered, and the thick arousal I could hear in his voice turned me on more. I moaned as I did as I was told, taking first one, then two fingers and thrusting them into myself. With my thumb I still worked my cl*t, using the friction I needed to start getting close. I started bucking my hips, grinding in rhythm, impatient for release. But then he stopped me again. He leaped out of the chair, catching me around the waist just before I could cum. He grabbed my wrists and pulled me to standing. Frustrated, I gave a little groan of protest but he pushed me down onto all fours. “When I say you can cum,” he reminded me, swatting my ass. Then I heard the

sound of him undoing his zipper and I felt a flush of wet heat in my puss*. I did love his co*ck. Maybe that was what he had planned for that night. He twisted my hair back into a pony tail, grabbing hold of it tight with his hand. He had me positioned right in front of the full-length mirror, and I could see him kneeling behind me, looming over me as I offered myself before him. “Watch as I enter you,” he instructed me. He pulled tight on my hair, keeping my head up, and moved his other hand to my hip, holding me in place. His co*ck was so big he always stretched me when he entered me. No matter how wet I was, how much I wanted it, it always took me a bit to adjust. Without warning, he thrust into me deep, my juices slick and slippery around his co*ck. My eyes widened and watered at getting stretched so full so fast. “Yes,” he encouraged me, starting to thrust. He pulled my hair, giving that edge of pain that made me whimper, my puss* contracting around his co*ck. “Take it.” Before long, I was pushing back against him, wanting it harder, needing him to slam his full length deep into me. “Now you get to cum,” he thundered, f*cking me hard and fast. “Watch it.” I looked up into the mirror and saw as he came inside me, filling me. My mouth opened in a perfect O, my eyes locked on the expression of pure ecstasy in the mirror. I never wanted him to stop, never wanted the org*sm to end. Watching his climax, the muscles so tight, his neck corded, hearing him and feeling him and watching him all at once made it even more intense, even hotter. Until with a final, animalistic grunt, he dropped down over me, kissing my neck, my back. “I love you, Sophie,” he told me with each kiss. He picked me up and carried me into the shower, big enough for two. We lathered and rinsed each other, toweled off and entered the kitchen relaxed and happy. Liam knew how to satisfy me like no other. We made a quick stir fry, some chicken with broccoli and peanuts over rice. Afterward, we were settling down for some quality mindless TV when he jumped up again. “Almost forgot. I got something for dessert.” He hustled off into the kitchen again. I didn’t think much of it. Sometimes he stopped off at the one ice cream shop that stayed open year round to get my favorite flavor. I figured that was probably what he was doing, getting us two bowls. But when he came back, he didn’t seem to have anything in his hands. “Sophie,” he started and right from the tone of his voice I could tell he was about to ask me something important. I sat up, and I honestly couldn’t even process a single word he said afterward because in his hand he held up an engagement ring. It looked simple and gorgeous and perfect and even as my mind

went into overload of joy I could process the fact that when he went down on one knee before me he was asking me to marry him. I found myself getting down on my knees next to him, throwing my arms around his neck and kissing, kissing his lips his chin, his neck. “Is that a yes?” he asked. “Yes! Of course, yes!” I cried, showering him with all the kisses I’d held back all those years we’d been apart. All the kisses I couldn’t wait to give him all the rest of our days. “Ooh let’s make Eloise the flower girl!” I declared, already thinking about how excited she’d be to have such an important part of the ceremony. “Good with me,” he agreed. “My mom is going to have a lot of ideas for you.” His tone sounded like it was a warning, but I couldn’t wait. She was so kind and generous and excited for us I knew we were going to have fun with the planning. My own mother would be another story, but we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. “Liam.” I kissed my love, my soon-to-be husband. He slipped the ring on my finger. A bit big, but that could be fixed. Then I’d never take it off. “You’re my everything,” he murmured, taking my hands. “I never thought I could be this happy.” “I had no idea,” I agreed. But I had the feeling it was just going to keep getting better all the time.



Thank you so much for reading All of Me! I hope you loved every page! It’s such fun sharing the story of Liam and Sophie with you.

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In Deep Chase is an Olympic swimmer going for gold. Focused, driven, intense. Emma is a blogger going for the scoop, and she has the perfect in. She’s gotten herself hired as his physical therapist. With all that intimate time together, the

secrets from his past don’t stand a chance. And neither does she.

Kobo: In Deep

All of You, out May 2017 Night after night, Jax pictures her coming to him. In his dreams, Sky appears in the darkness, ready and wanting. But the night that finally happens, he finds out they’re in the middle of a nightmare. Sky has nowhere to turn. Only one man can keep her safe, but he’s the most dangerous of them all. Her only choice is to put herself in Jax’s hands. Even if it destroys them both.


Thank you so much for reading! Thank you, thank you to my family and friends for their love and support. Inspiration strikes through the true connections we make. I feel truly grateful and lucky to have such amazing people in my life. Linda Russell at Sassy Savvy Fabulous PR, I’m so grateful to you for your support. You are tireless, patient, creative and really fun to work with. Thank you so much for working with me! Sophie my lovely PA and blogger, you’re so wonderful. Thank you for the early read of this book, for your consistently great advice, for your calm and patient support! You’ve helped me so much in understanding and navigating this wonderful and wild book world, and I’m deeply grateful. Perfect Pear Creative, I love the cover you designed for All of Me. I’m so thrilled to be working with you. You are so talented. A huge thank you to Candy and the team at Help Me Edit for proofreading. I so appreciate how quickly and thoroughly you read my work. And Jenny Wootton, what can I say? Once again, your careful read caught errors that gave me heart attacks and ultimately created a much improved final book! Thank you! Thanks to all at Give Me Books. Michelle, graphics guru extraordinaire, thank you for your patience and persistence. Special shout out to all my peeps in my FB group Callie’s Corner!! You all make it so

much fun to share my writing. I’m so grateful to all of the wonderful bloggers who’ve invited me to do takeovers, shared their reviews of my ARCs, posted freebies and generally helped spread the Callie Harper word. Thank you for sharing your time, blog followers and support! Sending out much love to the fantastic, entertaining writers I adore reading. And last but definitely not least, I have so much love for all of the amazing book lovers out there! I love your messages, emails and posts. Hearing from you makes my day! Thank you for reading my books. I look forward to bringing you many more entertaining reads in the future!


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